Colourful language: colours in international idioms
Although we have a plethora of words in our vocabularies to describe colour, it’s unlikely that we each perceive colour in the same way. What if your red is actually my blue, or my yellow is your green? We may never know if a Parisian’s rouge is identical to a Varsovian’s czerwony, but we can at least explore the use of colour in language; if we take a walk through the colour spectrum, how much do we really have in common?
Crimson hues signify a variety of strong emotions, from love to embarrassment to anger. English speakers aren’t the only ones seeing red; in France you might be rouge de colère (‘red with anger’), while in Romania you could find yourself a vedea roșu în fața ochilor (literally: ‘seeing red in front of your eyes’). Red is also associated with anger in German, but if your blood is really boiling then you’re positively prismatic: a hopping-mad Berliner might sich grün und blau ärgern (‘argue oneself blue and green’).
If you’ve ever discovered that you’re in the red before the end of the month (and presumably felt a tad annoyed about it), rest assured that you aren’t alone: Italian, Spanish and Portuguese are just a handful of the languages that use a similar phrase to describe a negative bank balance. Meanwhile, you can tell your Dutch friends that you’re broke with the phrase geen rode cent meer habben (‘to not have a red cent’). You might also hear the phrase red cent in American English – a reference to the copper colour of a one-cent coin.
Football fans could associate orange with the Dutch, while for Ukrainians a certain colour revolution might spring to mind. In Vietnamese, blood can flow orange: sự chảy máu cam (cam means ‘orange’) is ‘to have a nosebleed’.
But what about the humble orange, the most orange of them all? In English, the colour comes from the name of the fruit, rather than the other way around: orange itself entered English via Persian, Arabic, and Old French and its use to denote colour was first recorded in 1557, according to current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) research.
Yellow: not just for scaredy cats
As you might have learned from the movies, a lily-livered yellow-belly wouldn’t have the temerity to survive long in the Wild West. But does the colour of the sun always have to mean cowardice? In Buddhism, yellow has far more positive connotations: it is above all a symbol of humility and renunciation, and thus the colour of monks’ robes. We can’t all have the patience and virtue of a Buddhist monk, however: some German speakers associate yellow with envy (gelb vor Neid is used as well as grün vor Neid). In French, those who ‘laugh yellow’ (rire jaune, meaning ‘give a forced laugh’) are certainly not the calmest – or jolliest – of fellows. .
It ain’t easy (being green)
Think of green, and money often springs to mind – swiftly followed by jealousy. Unsurprisingly, green also crops up in expressions related to plants and produce: eat your greens!. Being green involves turning the lights off when you leave the room, sorting your waste, and buying local; in French, someone with horticultural talents has la main verte (‘a green hand’), whereas in German you might want to buy your organic tomatoes from someone with ein grünen Daumen (‘a green thumb’). Verdant shades are associated with immaturity: in Italian, youth is the ‘green age’ (verde età), while in German the inexperienced are ‘green behind the ears’ (noch grün hinter den Ohren sein). In Spanish, something odd is deemed to be ‘stranger than a green dog’ (mas raro que un perro verde) – which is really rather strange indeed.
Blue (and indigo too)
Both Russian and Italian children learn blue as two linguistic categories: Синий (siniy) and голубой (goluboi) in the former, and blu and azzurro in the latter. Blue is a privileged hue: someone with an aristocratic background is said to be blue-blooded in English, and Italian damsels-in-distress await their ‘blue prince’ (il principe azzurro), or Prince Charming. But blue isn’t just for noble blood and noble deeds: we all know what goes on in a blue film, and in German any wrongdoers who ‘get off with a blue eye’ (mit einen blauen Auge davonkommen) do not receive just punishment for their actions.
Our final rainbow colour – and its many shades – is often associated with bruises: in Spanish, you might get a ‘purple eye’ (un ojo morado) rather than a black eye as a result of a broken nose. In Vietnamese, ‘purple’ (tím) is also used to mean ‘bruise’ (similar to the French word for a bruise, un bleu; literally ‘a blue’). Violet certainly isn’t the most peaceful of colours: natives of Holland have been known to ‘turn purple with rage’ (paars aanlopen van woede), as have Portuguese speakers (ficar roxo de raiva). If you’re learning Russian, though, you needn’t concern yourself with all this pain and suffering: мне фиолетово (mne fioletovo, literally ‘it’s violet to me’) simply means ‘I don’t care.’