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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