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The meaning of colours in idioms?


I recently remembered a lesson about the meaning of colours in French and when I searched for some articles I came across this one:
Colourful speech

"... The seeming arbitrariness of many color idioms is underscored by the fact that in other languages these colors have different associations and are used in idioms with completely different meanings. When Korean speakers say that someone has a “black heart” they mean he has an ulterior motive — nothing to do with the cruelty idea it connotes for us. A thriller novel in Italian is un libro giallo (“a yellow book”), unrelated to the scandal-mongering notion of our “yellow journalism.” In English, “he is blue” means he’s sad. The German translation, however, er ist blau, means “he is drunk.” We use a “white lie” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. For Turkish speakers, this is a pembe yalan — a pink lie. Korean speakers go one step further with the “lie” color idioms. They speak of “a red lie,” which means a lie which everyone knows is a lie.

A lot of French color idioms are already familiar to us (film noir, la vie en rose, carte blanche) but did you know rire jaune (“to laugh yellow”) is to give a forced, insincere laugh? How about faire quelqu’un marron (“to make someone brown”), which means to cheat on someone? Here’s a question: is inexperience blue or green? The French say être fleur bleue (“to be a blue flower”) for naïveté. The Japanese seem to side with the French — they say an inexperienced person has “a blue butt.” We English speakers, on the other hand, might say “she’s so green” about the unseasoned colleague. That is, unless we add “with envy,” in which case we are talking about something else entirely. Of course, “that company is very green” probably refers to being environmentally aware. ..."

Maybe this is just interesting for you to read or can you give more examples about the meaning of colours in your language and / or the language(s) you learn?

Have fun :)

December 30, 2017



We English speakers, on the other hand, might say “she’s so green” about the unseasoned colleague.

For what it's worth, it is the same in Russian. Granted, I am biased (these are the two languages I am fluent in), but this makes perfect sence to me: young vegetation is bright green, and then it turns duller or begins fading. I am puzzled as for what the connection between "inexperienced" and "blue" might be...
On a separate note, "blue" (or rather "light blue" - Russian has two common words for "blue", "голубой"="light blue" and "синий"="intense blue") is a common slang for "gay", which has been in use for at least half a century.


Thanks :)
In German - my native language - it is the same for green, and I think also for the same reasons, we would for example say "Er ist noch grün hinter den Ohren" - he is still green behind the ears - to express someones inexperience. Whereas "blau" blue - and it was new to me that Russian differentiates between light blue and dark blue - expresses to be drunk in German "Er ist blau" - he is drunk. It is also used in "blau machen" - to take a day off without apparent reason of being sick nor having asked for permission ...
I have found an explanation - not sure if it is correct - that both stem from the process of dying clothes blue, which required large quantities of urine - and in order to get it the workers drank beer, so they got drunk. The day after dying the clothes they had a day of - remember, they were drunk ;-) (http://www.farbenundleben.de/kultur/blaumachen.htm unfortunately this page is in German only)


Don't forget in English if someone is "Yellow" Then that means they're a coward. If they're "Seeing Red" They're angry beyond reason and if you're feeling gray, you're unwell!


Thanks, I was not aware of that meaning of yellow. But this meaning of red is the same in German: "to see red" - "rot sehen".


This is a very interesting topic! In Dutch, we say "hij ergert zich groen en geel", which means "he is annoyed green and yellow". These colours might suggest some kind of sickness and reminds me of the English expression "he is worried sick", but it is interesting to observe that one can get "sick due to irritation".


I am glad you like it :)
There is a similar one in German, but without the connotation of sickness: "sich grün und blau ärgern"


Interesting discussion!

I'm German as well, so I don't have much to add. I see you also added "blau machen" in the comments.
I also thought of "schwarzfahren" (literally, "driving black"), which means to take public transportation without paying.

I just googled and found this link about english colour idioms: https://www.myenglishteacher.eu/blog/colour-idioms-list-and-their-meanings/


"Zwart rijden" is the same thing in Dutch!


Brilliant, thanks for the link! I've found a list on Geolino - a German language magazine targeted at children and teens - with explanations of the origins and meanings of German (and some English) idioms: https://www.geo.de/geolino/redewendungen?letter=A


Ohh, Geolino! So many childhood memories. I read for a couple years in my childhood/teens when it first came out. :D


In French, when you say about an older person

  • il est encore vert (he is still green)

you mean

  • he is still vigorous

this may also - but not always - relate to his sexual life. Henry IV nickname was "le vert galant" due to his numerous female conquests.


Interesting... in Spanish if someone "está un poco verde" it means they're not quite ripe or up to the task yet, and a "viejo verde" is a "dirty old man"! :-)


All this talking about old green men makes me get red ears "da bekomme ich rote Ohren" (German). Apparently this has a similar meaning in English https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/one%27s+ears+are+red :D


There is no logical reason for the meanings of colour words when used in idomatic phrases. It is more a culture thing in most cases and that is the way with idioms.

Blue is sad in English but also it can be used to describe something that contains a lot of sexual content e.g. a blue film. In America A Blue book is one that contains the value of second hand cars.


'Red lies' in Korea suggest a logical reason...


How does it suggest a logical reason?


You are right, there is no logic involved. I'll therefore update the topic of this discussion to "The meaning of colours in idioms?"
Thanks for pointing this out :)


This is an interesting post! :) I googled color idioms in other languages, and this old Duolingo post came up: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/7370354 They have a bunch of color idioms in German. It looks like Enlgish and German share a few like "a black sheep," "to see red," and "a green thumb." Although, German has "to be angry black" and "become green and blue from anger."


Speaking of "a black sheep", in Russian we use "белая ворона"="a white crow" to describe someone who really sticks out. It does not have the same negative connotation as Eglish "black sheep": it's just about being an oddity, there is no connotation of being disreputable.


Thanks, I am glad you like it :)
And thank you for the link to that old discussion, the list shared there is very useful! Yes, German and English share indeed several idioms with identical or similar meaning.


'Rire jaune' interesting... That one exists in portuguese too "sorriso amarelo" (yellow smile)


Woo O.O I enjoyed reading this so much!


PS I totally just snagged this article for my Twitter xD


Wow thanks for sharing!


Fun post! Thanks. Reminded me of a song from my youth.

"My Coloring Book"

For those who fancy coloring books

As certain people do

Here's a new one for you

A most unusual coloring book

The kind you never see

Crayons ready, very well

Begin to color me

These are the eyes that watched him

As he walked away

Color them gray (bleak, drained of joy)

This is the heart that thought

He would always be true

Color it blue (sad, downhearted)

These are the arms that held him

And touched him then lost him somehow

Color them empty now

These are the beads I wore

Until she came between

Color them green (envy, jealousy)

This is the room I sleep in

Walk in and weep in

Hide in that nobody sees

Color it lonely, please

This is the man

The one I depended upon

Color him gone...


How beautiful!
This reminds me of the colourful language used in some poems. Even one of my favourites (My mistress eyes - Shakespeare) mentions white and red: https://m.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/my-mistress-eyes-are-nothing-sun-sonnet-130


Oh, my! My dearest Barbra! Thank you so much…


Would imagine that the Japanese idiom where a blue butt=inexperience is probably a reference to the Mongolian blue spot, which a lot of Japanese babies are born with. It fades naturally as the child grows. Therefore still having one would mean that you are still young/inexperienced.

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