Foreign color idioms


Last time we talked about the ways colors have infused themselves into the English language. Naturally, this happens with other languages, too. But often there’s a little tweak. For instance, in English one could get a black eye, but in French it would be a black butter eye. And in English one could get red with rage, but in Italian it would be green with rage.

Alan Kennedy’s Color/Language Project has collected hundreds and hundreds of idioms involving color from languages across the globe. Below is a small sampling of my favorites from this site. If you enjoy these, I encourage you to check out Alan’s site. You’ll love it.


  literal translation meaning
passer une nuit blanche to spend a white night to have a sleepless night
blanc-bec white beak an inexperienced but pretentious person
une oie blanche a white goose a naive, silly girl
œil au beurre noir black butter eye bruised eye
Chou vert et vert chou cabbage green and green cabbage six of one, a half-dozen of the other
faire quelqu’un marron to make someone brown to cheat on someone
blanca como la nalga de una monja white like a nun’s butt cheek pale
más listo que los ratones colorados more clever than red mice very cunning
un principe azul a blue prince Prince Charming
di punto in bianco from a point in white suddenly, unexpectedly
verde dalla rabbia green from rage very angry
un giallo a yellow an unsolved mystery
eminenza grigia gray eminence a powerful man controlling the situation behind the scenes
Halbgötter in Weiß demigods in white physicians
Heute rot, Morgen tot today red, tomorrow dead here today, gone tomorrow
das Gelbe vom Ei the yellow of the egg a good thing
Blauäugig sein to be blue-eyed naïve, gullible
Nachts sind alle Katzen grau at night all cats are gray It makes no difference (under certain circumstances).
sich eine goldene Nase verdienen earn yourself a golden nose to make a fortune
mieć żółte papiery to have yellow papers to be insane
myśleć o niebieskich migdałach to think about blue almonds to daydream
szary cztowiek gray person average Joe
отложить на чёрный день put aside for a black day put aside for a rainy day
голубая мечта light blue desire the thing you crave the most
אין לי מושג ירוק I don’t have a green notion I have no idea
צהובים זה לזה yellow to each other hating each other
טלית שכולה תכלת a light blue prayer shawl innocent & pure (used sarcastically)
Scottish Gaelic
chan ‘eil e geal da he has no white for him he is not fond of him
dearg-amadan a red fool a complete fool
maputi ang tainga white-eared stingy
maitim ang buto bone is black bad person
άσπρο πάτο! white bottom! bottoms up!
μαύρα μάτια κάναμε να σε δούμε our eyes turned black to see you we missed you for a long time
πράσινα άλογα green horses! an exclamation indicating disbelief; nonsense
πρασίνισε απ’το κακό του he turned green from anger he got very angry

Color and language

For the past week I have been fighting the flu. I’ve been, if you will, green around the gills, which is another way to say “I’ve been feeling yucky.” This got me thinking about all the other idioms and nouns and verbs we use that involve color. Yellow-bellied. Once in a blue moon. Pot calling the kettle black. Red herring.

I have collected some of them below for your enjoyment. If you can think of others, feel free to share them in the comments section.


black as a stack of black cats: very black
Norman’s electricity went out last night, and it was as black as a stack of black cats.

black as the ace of spades: very black
After his shift as a chimney sweep, Norman looked as black as the ace of spades.

black and blue: bruised
After the kerfuffle at the hop, Norman was black and blue.

black and white: either one way or the other, such as either good or bad
Norman’s view of the sci-fi versus fantasy debate was black and white.

black eye: a bruise near an eye that makes it look black
After Norman roughhoused with the roughnecks, he had a black eye.

black out: to lose consciousness
After Norman scrapped with hobnobbers, he blacked out on the pavement.

black sheep: a person who is an outsider in a family or group
When Norman showed up to Sunday dinner in his red dress, he became the black sheep of his conservative family.

blackball: to exclude someone from a social event
After the dress fiasco, Norman’s family blackballed him from family get-togethers.

blackmail: to take money from someone after threatening them
When Norman found out his classmate cheated, he tried to blackmail him and said he’d tell the teacher if he didn’t give Norman his lunch money.

in the black: to be profitable
Norman’s family’s upholstery business was in the black last year.

pot calling the kettle black: the accuser is as guilty as the accused
Norman’s sister is like the pot calling the kettle black. They both eat too many cookies.


blue-collar worker: a worker who does manual labor
Norman’s grandfather had been a blue-collar worker in the coalmine.

blue in the face: for a long time
Norman’s mother can talk until she’s blue in the face, but it’s not going to stop Norman from building his treehouse.

blue-ribbon: being of superior quality; the best in the group
Norman’s recipe makes a blue-ribbon blueberry pie.

get the blues: to become very sad, depressed
Norman got the blues when he learned the tickets to the symphony were sold out.

once in a blue moon: very rarely
Norman would go to the movies once in a blue moon.

out of the blue: by surprise, with no forethought
Out of the blue, Norman decided to skip school.


brown bag it: to take lunch to school or work
Since Norman is a vegetarian, he finds it better to brown bag it.

brown-nose: to flatter someone in order to get in their good graces
Norman did well in school because he brown-nosed the teachers.


golden boy: a person idolized for great skill
When Norman won the manicure competition, the others called him a golden boy.

golden opportunity: a remarkable opportunity
It was a golden opportunity when Norman got an internship with a local glitter factory.


get gray hair: to be extremely stressed
Norman’s mother was so stressed from dealing with Norman that she was going to get gray hair.

gray area: something that does not conform to the rules; a situation without a clear answer
Norman exploited a gray area in the school dress code and showed up to class in sequins tights.


get the green light: to get the signal to start something
During Norman’s talk with his mother, he got the green light to start building his treehouse.

grass is always greener on the other side: to think another situation would be better than the present situation
Norman believes the grass is always greener on the other side, so he wants to change high schools.

green: new, inexperienced
This was Norman’s first day on the job, and everyone knew he was green.

green-eyed monster: jealousy
Norman was consumed by the green-eyed monster when he saw the girl he liked kissing someone else.

green thumb: having skills with gardening
Norman could make anything grow. He had a green thumb.


pink slip: to get fired
Norman hadn’t showed up to work in three days, so he got the pink slip.

tickled pink: to be very excited
When the girl Norman liked agreed to a date, he was tickled pink.


catch someone red-handed: catch someone in the middle of doing something wrong
Norman caught his sister red-handed shoplifting a pretty pantsuit.

in the red: to be in debt
Since Norman’s aunt’s donut shop has been in the red for years, she is going to close it.

like waving a red flag in front of a bull: doing something that will definitely anger someone or something
When Norman burped in front of his grandma, it was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

paint the town red: to have a good time
Norman and his lady friend decided to paint the town red Friday night.

red as a poppy: very red
After Norman’s aunt kissed his cheek, he sported a lipstick mark as red as a poppy.

red as a ruby: deep red
Norman picked out a dress that was as red as a ruby.

red-carpet treatment: special treatment
Norman really got the red-carpet treatment at the school prom.

red flag: a signal that something is not working properly
When Norman’s weight hit three hundred pounds, it was a red flag that he needed to stop eating so many cookies.

red herring: an unimportant matter that draws attention from the main issue
Norman’s sister’s argument was a red herring. It had nothing to do with the main problem.

red-letter day: a memorable day
The day of Norman’s prom was a red-letter day. He would never forget it.

red tape: excessive bureaucratic rules
Norman had to go through so much red tape to get the city to approve his treehouse design.

see red: to get angry
When Norman’s mom took away his cookies, he saw red.


raise a white flag: to show you have been defeated
Norman rose the white flag after the meathead broke his nose.

white as a ghost: being very pale due to shock or illness
After Norman startled me, I turned as white as a ghost.

white as a sheet: very pale
Norman couldn’t wait to sun himself in Cabo San Lucas. He was as white as a sheet.

white as the driven snow: very white
When Norman started using the new laundry detergent, his white shirts were as white as the driven snow.

white-collar worker: a worker who does not do manual labor
Norman wanted to go to college so he could be a white-collar worker and spend his days in a cubicle.

white lie: a harmless lie
Norman told a white lie to his mom when he said she didn’t look fat in that dress.


yellow-bellied: to be cowardly
Norman was yellow-bellied when he was too shy to ask the girl on a date.