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.

A (snarky) Word Of The Year roundup

There is a narrow spectrum of occasions that really get word nerds excited. And one of them is the year-end lists of Words Of The Year (or WOTY as we like to call it, while we push the brims of our glasses up our collective noses).

What do 2011’s Words Of The Year say about this trip around the sun? Basically, it sucked. Between social unrest and the global economy tanking, I’m surprised anyone was able to poke themselves out of the doom and gloom to think about words. But somehow the lexicographical powers that be did, and the resulting lists reveal just what sourpusses we have been.

Here are 2011’s Words Of The Year. Enjoy (or not, as that would be more fitting).

eurozone: With the debt crisis spreading across Europe this year, it’s not surprising that Financial News chose this word as its WOTY. The article cites that media database Factiva recorded the word appeared almost three times more in 2011 than in 2010.

Read more at:

occupy: I thought occupy would surely top nearly every WOTY list. I was wrong (and it’s not the first time). Thankfully, The Global Language Monitor thought it worthy of topping their list. Though it’s by no means a new word (Occupy has been in use since the mid-fourteenth century.), the Occupy Wall Street movement breathed new life into it. All of a sudden, people were occupying everything, from cities across the globe to this guy, who asked his girlfriend to “occupy his life”:


Read more at:

pragmatic: This is Merriam-Webster’s winner for WOTY. It means “practical as opposed to idealistic.” The dictionary writers say that pragmatic had an “unprecedented number” of searches on their site. But whether that means this is a good choice or that people simply don’t have a good vocabulary is unclear. Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, has a brighter view of humanity. He says, “It’s a word that resonates with society as a whole; something people want to understand fully.”

Read more at:

squeezed middle: This is a term mostly used in Britain. And, since I’m not British, here’s a quote from the Oxford Dictionaries’ post about the word to explain it: “Interestingly, ‘squeezed middle,’ Ed Miliband’s term for those seen as bearing the brunt of government tax burdens whilst having the least with which to relieve it, operates slightly differently. It is a label that those affected are opting into rather than having directed against them, and perhaps therein lies its strength. The speed with which it has taken root, and the likelihood of its endurance while anxieties deepen, made it a good candidate for Word of the Year.”

Read more at:

tergiversate: Haven’t heard of this one? Yeah, me either. But it was’s selection for this year. Pronounced “ter-JIV-er-sate,” it means “to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to subject, etc.” Anyone paying attention to Republican primary frontrunners will quickly realize why this was’s choice. The site also explains that “the stock market, politicians, and even public opinion polls have tergiversated all year long.”

Read more at:

Year in slang
Luckily, in the pauses between our crying jags, we did come up with some interesting slang words. Here are the ones that have met end-of-the-year fanfare. (Thanks to the fine fun folks at Urban Dictionary for the definitions and examples.)

bunga bunga: an orgy; the term was popularized by the media after Silvio Berlusconi, [former] Prime Minister of Italy, was accused of having sex with an underage girl at one of said parties.

Silvio Berlusconi will perform some statutory rape at tonight’s bunga bunga party!

humblebrag: Subtly letting others now about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor or “woe is me” gloss.

Uggggh just ate about fifteen piece of chocolate gotta learn to control myself when flying first class or they’ll cancel my modelling contract LOL :p

Fracking: A new way of extracting oil from shale deposits via hydraulic fracturing. Unfortunately whoever came up with the name never saw Battlestar Galactica.

Have you heard about the fracking they’re doing for oil? I don’t think prices are high enough for me to start fracking people for it.

[Note: Frack is the inventive workaround the writers of the supremely awesome sci-fi show, Battlestar Galactica, (the remake, not the original) used to mean fuck.]

planking: The art of planking is to lay horizontally across any object or the ground with their arms by their sides, aiming to occur in daring situations or a brotherly display of core-strength.

Look at that madman planking that parking meter!

In case you haven’t witnessed this craze personally, here’s a video demonstration:


Tebowing: To get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.

I was in the middle of Times Square and I saw a girl Tebowing in the street. She almost got squashed.

[This slang term is named after the supremely annoying Denver Bronco’s quarterback, Tim Tebow. Of course, the internets spawned this amazing website to honor this practice.]

And how could we forget . . .

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!