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.

Like turkeys voting for an early Christmas

If you’re like me, you’ve been spending the last two weeks in a feverish race to finish end-of-the-year work projects, purchase Christmas presents, and get everything sorted so you can enjoy the most Martha Stewart-worthy holiday. The result: not enough sleep, short tempers, and general humbuggedness.

Perhaps we are like turkeys voting for an early Christmas.

This is my favorite Christmas-related idiom. As the second edition of the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary explains, this idiom is used mostly in Britain and Australia (where the people tend to have a perverse sense of humor more aligned with my own). To explain this idiom: if a person is like a turkey voting for an early Christmas, they accept a situation that will yield very bad results for them. The saying uses turkeys because they are a favorite cooked dish at Christmas dinners. Get it? Like turkeys voting for an early Christmas. Ha!

Since this common pre-holiday rampage so many of us get involved in tends to yield the bad results I mentioned earlier, I think it’s fair to use this idiom.

Here are more turkey-ish examples:

When Zowie signed up to organize the humongous family reunion, she was like a turkey voting for an early Christmas.

The exasperated science teacher signed up to take on two more classes. Boy, he’s like a turkey voting for an early Christmas.

Santa has been too busy drinking spiked eggnog to make his lists and check them twice—just like a turkey voting for an early Christmas.

So, are you feeling like a turkey this time of year? Maybe using this idiom (and perhaps shouting it very loudly in crowded shopping malls) will make you feel better. Otherwise, you can always feel free to vent to me.

Office idioms

A couple of years ago, back when I tried to live a corporate life, a coworker and I were discussing how works slows down to a trickle in December. Basically, people are only thinking about the holidays, and it seems that they really don’t give a hoot about work for an entire month. (Has this been your experience, too?)

I asked him what he had been up to lately, workwise, and he said to me, “Oh, I’ve just been pushing commas around.” I thought this was the perfect way to explain the utter boredom that can come from a cubical existence and the need to at least make it look like you’re busy.

As a freelancer, I have a lot fewer opportunities to use “pushing commas around,” but I try to work it in when I can.

Do you use any idioms to explain that December workplace boredom? I would love you hear them!

The King James Bible gave English some awesome phrases

Courtesy of

Regardless of your faith, or lack thereof, it is simply astonishing to learn the number of common English phrases that come from the King James Bible. “A drop in the bucket,” “the root of the matter,” “fight the good fight,” these phrases all got their life from that version of the bible. Yeah. Really. C’est vrai, for our French readers.

The December 2011 issue of National Geographic discusses the history and influence of the King James Bible, and in an article titled “A Bible’s Gift to Language,” it lists several famous phrases the book originated. In the list below, I have included phrases from that article and also phrases I found at the website The Phrase Finder.



Common English phrases from the King James Bible:

A drop in the bucket Isaiah 40:15

A house divided against itself cannot stand. – Matthew 12:25

A labor of love – Hebrews 6:10

A thorn in the flesh – 2 Corinthians 12:7

All things must pass. – Matthew 24:6

At their wits’ end – Psalms 107:27

Be horribly afraid – Jeremiah 2:12

Coat of many colors – Genesis 37:3

Eat, drink, and be merry. – Ecclesiastes 8:15

Fall from grace – Galatians 5:4

Fight the good fight. – Timothy 6.12

How are the mighty fallen – Samuel 1:19

Know for a certainty – Joshua 23:13

Many are called, but few are chosen. – Matthew 22:14

My cup runneth over. – Psalms 23:5

Out of the mouths of babes – Psalms 8:2

Set thine house in order – Isaiah 38:1

The ends of the earth – Zechariah 9:10

The love of money is the root of all evil. – Timothy 6:10

The root of the matter – Job 19:28

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. – Matthew 26:41

To everything there is a season. – Ecclesiastes 3:1

Turned the world upside down – Acts 17:6

Want to learn more?
There are even more common phrases that were popularized by (but did not originated from) the King James Bible and more phrases that came into the language from earlier versions of the bible. To learn more about those phrases, check out the site I mentioned earlier, The Phrase Finder.

Also, author David Crystal wrote an entire book about this subject, called Begat. Click here to read an interview he did with NPR about his book and to read an excerpt.

Bloody idioms


It’s a special Halloween edition of Grammar Party. In the spirit of all things bloody and gory, we’re going to take a look at some of the most popular English idioms involving blood. I hope it doesn’t make your blood curdle!

a blood brother: a man who has promised to treat another man as his brother, often in a ceremony in which they cut themselves and mix their blood together[i]
Example: The zombie and the vampire were so close that they were blood brothers.

bad blood: feelings of hate between people because of arguments in the past[ii]
Example: After the vampire stole the zombie’s girlfriend, they had bad blood.

be somebody’s (own) flesh and blood: to be someone’s relative[iii]
Example: Even though Zombie Guy Jr. was Mr. Zombie Guy’s flesh and blood, Mr. Zombie Guy still treated him poorly.

be in the/your blood: if an ability or a skill is in someone’s blood, they have it naturally, usually because it already exists in their family or is a tradition of their social group[iv]
Example: The zombie’s father ate people. His grandfather ate people. You could say eating people was in his blood.

be out for blood: if you are out for blood, you are determined to find someone to attack or blame for something[v]
Example: After the vampire stole the zombie’s girlfriend, the zombie was out for blood.

blood and guts: violence shown on television, film, or in the theater, where people are seen being injured or killed[vi]
Example: Eat the Humans was the zombie’s favorite video game because it had a lot of blood and guts.

blood is thicker than something: family relationships are stronger and more important than something else[vii]
Example: Even though Mr. Zombie Guy was angry at his son, he realized that blood is thicker than water, and he overcame his anger.

(make) your blood run cold: to be very frightened[viii]
Example: The vampire startled the zombie so greatly that he made the zombie’s blood run cold.

blood, sweat, and tears: a lot of effort and suffering[ix]
Example: The zombie could tell by the level of the vampire’s craftsmanship that he put his blood, sweat, and tears into building his new torture device.

curdle someone’s blood: to frighten or disgust someone severely[x]
Example: The horror movie scared the zombie so much that it made his blood curdle.

get blood from a stone: to do something very difficult[xi]
Example: Zombie Guy Jr. wanted to make amends with his father, but that was like trying to get blood from a stone.

have someone’s blood on one’s hands: to be responsible for someone’s death; to be guilty of causing someone’s death[xii]
Example: After the zombie went on his murderous rampage, he had blood on his hands.

in cold blood: if you do something, especially kill someone, in cold blood, you do it in a way which is cruel because you plan it and do it without emotion[xiii]
Example: Unlike the zombie, who killed with reckless abandon, the vampire planned his murders and killed in cold blood.

new blood: new members brought into a group to revive it[xiv]
Example: The zombie was relieved there was new blood in his Overeaters Anonymous group.

too rich for someone’s blood: too expensive for one’s budget[xv]
Example: The vampire was eyeing a new cape, but it was too rich for his blood.