Colorful English

Colorful English

“Sunset is still my favorite color, and rainbow is second.”

Mattie Stepanek, an American poet

We are surrounded by color: soft, warm, deep, vivid, neutral, natural etc. In English there are numerous idioms related to color, and we’d like to devote this post to some common expressions of the kind. Also, the difference between some confusing color-related words, like “hue”, “shade”, tint” and “tone”, will be explained. So, read on…


There are a few primary colors (the British spelling is “colours”): blue, yellow, red, white and black. Yet, there are so many secondary and tertiary ones: orange, pink, green, purple, violet, crimson, brown etc. A shade of a particular color is one of its different forms. For example, canary, gold and lemon are all shades of yellow. A shade, or variety of a color can also be called a tint (e.g. The sky was taking on an apricot tint; Not quite like amber, they’re a deeper tint, changing with the light).The word “hue” is more literary than “color” or “shade” (e.g. The water is the deepest hue of aquamarine; The same hue will look different in different light). A tone is one of the lighter, darker, or brighter shades of the same color. For example, skin tones are pale, rosy-pale, light, normal, tan, exotic, medium, dark and native.

Note that in color theory the definitions may be more specific.


People around the world have always associated many different things with colors. Here are a few examples:

  • Japanese: 主に交われば朱くなる. Meaning: if you socialize with bad people, you become just like them (literally: If you contact red, you become red).
  • Russian: Держать в чёрном теле. Meaning: to be very strict to someone (literally: to hold in a black body).
  • Chinese: 青出于蓝而胜于蓝. Meaning: The student has surpassed the teacher (literallyIndigo blue is extracted from the indigo plant, but it is bluer than the plant it comes from).
  • French: Avoir une peur bleue. Meaning: to be very scared (literally: to have a blue fear).
  • Spanish: Rojo como un tomate. Meaning: to be very angry or suffer from sunburn (literally: red like a tomato).

More often than not, the same idea is expressed differently in different languages. For example, if you use the English idiom “to be blue”, you mean “to be sad”. But if you metaphrase, you get “быть голубым” in Russian, which means “to be a gay”, not “to be sad”. However, sometimes the same idea is expressed in the same way. Again, let’s compare English and Russian: “Time flies” means “time seems to pass very quickly” = Время летит (literally “time flies”) – used as the same kind of observation. However, if you say 時間が飛ぶ (literally “time flies”) in Japanese, it makes no sense, but if you say 光陰矢の如し (“lights and shadows are like arrows”), you manage to express the same idea about how quickly time passes. Idioms are interesting, aren’t they?

Let your life be full of color!


And now let’s focus on 10 common English idioms related to color:

  1. Out of the blue – unexpectedly:  I hate to turn up out of the blue, uninvited but I
    couldn’t stay away… (from “Someone like you” by Adele).
  2. Black and blue – bruised: Black, black, black and blue… Beat me till I’m numb… (from “Grenade” by Bruno Mars).
  3. A red-letter day – a very important day: Another red-letter day, so the pound has dropped… (from “Friends will be friends” by Queen).
  4. To be in the pink – to be healthyWell, let the geek in the pink take a stab at it… (from “Geek in the pink” by Jason Mraz). To take a stab at something is another idiom, which means “to try something” or “to guess”.
  5. Yellow brick road – a path believed to lead to success or adventure: So goodbye yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl… (from “Goodbye yellow brick road” by Elton John).
  6. The green light (for something)permission: So if you want to, you’ve got the green light… (from “Green Light” by Beyonce). 
  7. Rose-colored glasses – an unduly idealistic, optimistic, or sentimental perspective on or about something: So put your rose-colored glasses on and party on… (from “Chained to the rhythm” by Katy Perry).
  8. A (little) white lie – a small or harmless lie that you tell to avoid hurting somebody: If it’s all the same to you, then it’s a little white lie… (from “White lie” by The Lumineers).
  9. Black magic – magic used for or derived from evil forces: Boy, you belong to me,
    I got the recipe and it’s called black magic… (from “Black Magic” by Little Mix). 
  10. To be green with envy – to be very jealous of another person: I’m green with envy
    For what you’re taking away… (from “Green with envy” by Sea Pinks). 

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