It’s not all black and white

Nov 30, 2011 by

As was discussed in earlier postings, the cross-linguistic range of color terms is quite complex and languages differ as to how the treat the color spectrum (e.g., see how Hanunoo does it). But interestingly, not all uses of color terms are to denote color per se.

One good example of “color that isn’t really about color” is the use of color terms to denote races. Such racial thinking in terms of color was thought to be behind the colors selected for the Olympic rings: at least prior to 1951, the official Olympic handbook stated that each colour corresponded to a particular continent: blue for Europe, yellow for Asia, black for Africa, green for Oceania and red for America (North and South being considered as a single continent). While green for Oceania may be a reference to the greenery of (some of) the Pacific islands, the other colors are a clear nod to the use of color terms to denote racial groups (and is the blue for Europe a nod to the Europeans being of the “blue blood”, as far as the Eurocentric early Olympic movement was concerned?).

However, as Martin W. Lewis and Karen E. Wigen rightfully note in their The Myth of Continents,

“It does not require an especially discerning eye to realize that there is nothing red about indigenous Americans or yellow about East Asians — or that blacks are not really black and whites are far from white.” (p. 120)

Moreover, using color terms metaphorically (in a way, “concealing the truth”) goes far beyond racial descriptions discussed by Lewis & Wigen. For example, white wine is more yellow than white and red wine is more purple than red. Nor is blue blood truly blue, nor yellow press yellow, nor black market black. And of course, a red herring is neither red in color, not a kind of salted fish. In all these expressions, the color terms are stripped of their literal sense and are used metaphorically and idiomatically.

Furthermore, using color terms as descriptors of people, but to denote some property other than the literal (or even the racial) color is very common and can vary from language to language. Take, for example, the use of the term ‘blue’ to describe people in different languages. In several languages around the world ‘blue’ is used to describe Africans that we would refer to as “blacks”. This was the case, for instance, in Old Norse and it is also true in Irish and the languages of several North African countries (e.g. in Sudan), where ‘blue’ describes black Africans and ‘green’ — dark-skinned Arabs. Thus, for the Vikings, the Irishmen and the Sudanese the “Blue Man Show” has a completely different sense to it!

But in other languages, ‘blue people’ designates something other than race. For example, in Spanish and Italian un principe azul / il principe azzurro (literally ‘the light-blue prince’) means ‘Prince Charming’. In Russian, on the contrary, referring to a man as ‘light blue’ would make him far from any girl’s dream, as goluboj (literally ‘light blue’) also means ‘homosexual’. If a German characterizes someone as blau, it means that the person is ‘drunk or stoned’. In Serbian/Croatian plava kosa means ‘blond (literally ‘blue’) hair’; in Hebrew saying that someone has a rosh kaxol’ (literally ‘blue head’) means that they are ‘obsessed with sex’.

And even though the idiomatic uses of color terms may seem rather idiosyncratic and language-specific, there are some interesting patterns to such metaphors. Take, for example, the following cross-linguistic set of color idioms that involve the word ‘white’. For instance, in French passer une nuit blanche (literally ‘to spend a white night’) means ‘to have a sleepless night’ (this expression is also found in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese); a person characterized as blanc-bec (literally ‘white beak’) is ‘an inexperienced but pretentious person’; and avoir un examen blanc (literally ‘to have a white exam’) means ‘to take a practice/mock exam’. Spanish also has cachetada con guante blanco (literally ‘slapping with a white glove’) means ‘responding to aggression in an elegant/non-violent manner’. In Russian belyj stix (literally ‘white poem’) means a ‘poem without rhyme’. Italian provides a couple of additional examples: mangiare in bianco (literally ‘to eat in white’) meaning ‘to eat lightly’ and andare in bianco (literally ‘to go in white’) meaning ‘to go without sex after a date’. While for an Italian ‘a white week’ designates a skiing vacation (a reference to the color of snow, perhaps?), for a Swede vit vecka is a week without any alcohol. See a pattern? The metaphoric use of ‘white’ in these different idioms denotes ‘lacking, absence of some essential property’. This is also the sense we find in the English expression ‘a white lie’, which is a lie lacking in malicious intent.


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  • John Cowan

    Blue blood refers to the visibility of the veins (whose blood is indeed blue due to the low level of oxyhemoglobin) in persons of European descent.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @John Cowan: Thanks for your comment! I am aware that "blue blood" refers to the color of the veins, but I thought it referred to the upper classes (whose veins don't look that different from those of lower class people). And I am not aware of any difference in the appearance of veins between races… will have to look into that. In any case, the interesting thing is that blood itself looks the same (and there are no significant genetic differences between "races"), so why would veins look more blue with Europeans? I should ask my husband, who researches blood flow…

    • H Klang

      @ Jaohn Cowan: I’m reminded of the documentary “Blood in the Face” on neo-Nazis in the United States, whose provocative title refers to the criterion that a person is white enough if the redness of their facial capillaries is easily seen. The theory also involved a demarcation that conveniently included the northern quarter of Italy.

  • Christophe

    @Asya: Basically, the lighter the skin, the more visible the veins, and the more they look blue. Dark-skinned people (whether the skin is just generally darker or because they are tanned) usually have less prominent veins, compared to the rest of the skin. At the time when the expression appeared, upper classes typically valued a lighter skin complexion as a mark of nobility, and ensured their skin stayed as pale as possible by protecting themselves constantly against the sun. The lower classes, on the other hand, typically worked outside, which resulted in their skin being generally darker than that of the upper classes.

    My favourite expression surrounding the colour blue is in Japanese. When you call someone _aoi_ there, you basically are saying that they are inexperienced, i.e. they are *green*! 🙂

  • Gabe J

    In French there is also the expression "être vert" which means to be upset because of a recent turn of events…
    Also, "être gris" which means to be very drunk.
    "Voir rouge" means to get suddenly angry.
    "Voir la vie en rose" means to be an optimist.
    "Un bleu" is a newbie.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Christophe: Thank you for your comment. I like your explanation, it makes sense. And as for ao in Japanese, doesn't it denote both 'blue' and 'green' (it's one of those 'grue' terms that I've discussed here: http://languages-of-the-world.blogspot.com/2011/03/grue-bleen-rellow.html)?

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Gabe J: Thank you for your comment and for offering these wonderful examples. I believe English too has the expression 'to see in red', like the French. The others are not parallel, I think. Thanks for offering them. The example of "voir la vie en rose" reminded me of Edit Piaf song…

  • Phil Daniels
  • Phil Daniels

    Australians refer to people with red hair as "Blue or Bluey"

  • Ran

    English has "to see red" (not "to see *in* red"); and we have "rose-colored glasses" or "rose-tinted glasses", which a perennial optimist sees the world through.

  • MOCKBA

    I have a fav example of "white means deficient", although, as most Indian lore tales, it may need to be confirmed. Supposedly the Navajos call snowberries "spirit serviceberries" (that's what the dead ones eat instead of the real thing). Of course there are white knights and white elephants and white papers and white noise to muddy the waters too.

    BTW did you see xkcd's nice feature on naming colors?

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Phil Daniels: Thanks for your comments and the link to the origin of "blue blood". I wonder what Australians call people with blue hair?! 😉

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Ran: Thanks for the correction!

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @MOCKBA: Thank you for your comment and the link to the blog on colors. Very funny!

  • F

    It seems to me that there are several different metaphorical meanings of 'white' in that list. The dominant one is indeed "plain", but in some it passes into "innocent" or even "virtuous"; the "white night" seems to me one that is lit (by candles, electricity, whatever) and I think the Spanish example refers to a literal white glove, part of a refined costume, perhaps.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @F: Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  • Seumas

    I think the genesis of 'blue' for someone with red hair comes from Australian's penchant for irony (it's common for someone's nickname to be the opposite of a prominent quality about them). So a really tall guy would be called 'Tiny', etc.

  • Anonymous

    Japanese "ao-" is one of the grue words whose literal sense has recently specialized to blue due to pressure from green/blue languages.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Anonymous: Thank you for your comment on Japanese. The interesting thing is that because of the earlier 'grue' meaning of ao, the "green" traffic light (which is called ao in Japanese) is bluer than in most other countries…

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Seumas: Thanks for the comment on the origin of the Australian use of 'blue' for 'red' (hair). I am guessing women who die their color blue are referred to as redheads? 😉

  • Pingback: Blue languages | Kemchoamerica()

  • Dear Asja, thank

    • Thank you for your kind words, Ljubica! And for the interesting tidbit. Fascinating!