Color Idioms

Color Idioms

Every culture has idioms -- a phrase that has become commonly recognized for their figurative rather than literal meaning -- that can quickly convey meaning with just a few words. Color idioms have always caught my attention and compiled this list for you to enjoy.

Color Idioms: Black

Black comedy: creating comedy out of a tragic event or situation

Black coffee: coffee without milk

Pitch black: somewhere that is very dark, and you are unable to see anything.

Black collar: formerly referred to those whose collars were often black by the nature of their jobs, for example, coal miners and oil workers. The idiom has morphed and now refers to those who work in creative type jobs such as artists, graphic designers, video producers, etc. many of whom have made black attire their unofficial uniform.

Black belt: the highest awarded belt in the martial arts

Black tie: a formal event or affair. It also refers to the attire of male guests wearing black bow ties with tuxedos or dinner jackets

Blackball: voting against someone in a secret manner to prevent them from becoming a member of a club

Blackmail: to demand payment or action by means of a threat

Black sheep: a person who is the ‘odd one out’ of a group, and doesn’t fit in with others. Black sheep can also refer to someone who is a disgrace or embarrassment to a group such as a bad character in an otherwise respectable group

Black day: a bad day; often used before the name of a particular day to symbolize a tragic event, such as black Tuesday

In the black: successful or profitable

Black Friday: the day after Thanksgiving. [See Why the Day After Thanksgiving is Called Black Friday]

Please note: Some of the terms above illustrate how historically black has been equated to negativity. Today, that idea is outmoded. Using the word black in a negative context could be hurtful. Like color, words are a powerful tool. Please always choose both your words and colors wisely.

Color Idioms: Blue

Out of the blue: unexpected

True blue: to be loyal or faithful

Once in a blue moon: an event that occurs infrequently. [See How the Idiom Blue Moon Came About]

Blue ribbon: first place; to describe something as being of the highest quality

Blue blood: an aristocrat [See The Colorful Connection Between Blue Blood and Silver Spoon]

Blue law: laws about morality issues

Blue comedy: jokes about socially taboo subjects

Blueprint: a detailed design of an object or idea

Blue plate special: a special priced meal at a restaurant

Bluestocking: a woman with strong scholarly interests

Blue pencil: to censor something, or limit the information that is shared

Feeling blue: to feel sad or unhappy

A bolt from the blue: when some unexpected bad news is received

Blue-color: relating to manual work or workers, particularly in industry

Talk a blue streak: when someone talks very much and very rapidly

Blue in the face: to try really hard to win someone’s agreement, but usually end unsuccessfully

Men/boys in blue: used to describe the police, because of the color of their uniforms

Color Idioms: Brown

Brown sugar: partially refined sugar

Brown bagging: to bring a homemade packed lunch to work

Brown out: a partial loss of electrical power. Also a medical term for someone who ends up with dimmed vision due to a loss of blood pressure. A brownout is also the term used for the state of heavy alcohol consumption verging on a blackout.

Brownstone: a building made out of dark colored sandstone

In a brown study: describing someone as being in deep thought

Golden handshake: a large sum of money that is paid to a retiring manager or director, or to a redundant worker

Golden opportunity: an opportunity that may never present itself again

Golden boy: term used for someone to idolized for a great skill, usually in sport or for someone in a company thought to have the skills to make it successful

Color Idioms: Gray

Gray market: the business of buying or selling items that are priced below what has been regulated

Gray mood: an unhappy mood

Gray area: caught between two differing views

Grey-collar: refers to the balance of employed people not classified as white or blue-collar. These workers often have licenses, associate degrees or diplomas from a trade or technical school in a particular field have a specific skill set and require more specialized knowledge than their blue-collar counterparts.

Color Idioms: Green

Green: young, fresh and growing or something that is not yet ripe or finished

Get or give the green light: get approval to move ahead or proceed with a project or task

Greenmail: An antitakeover measure to ward off an unfriendly company that is threatening a hostile takeover.

Green corn: the young, tender ears of Indian corn

Green thumb (US) or Green fingers (UK): an unusual ability to make plants grow

Green room: a room (in a theater or studio) where performers can relax before or after appearances

Greenback: a legal-tender note issued by the United States government

Going green: when someone or something makes changes to help protect the environment, or reduces waste or pollution

Greener pastures: something newer, more interesting, better (or perceived to be better), such as a new job, place or activity

Green with envy: jealous or envious

Greenhorn: novice, trainee, beginner

Green around the gills: marked by a pale, sickly, or nauseated appearance

Turn green: to look pale and look as if you are going to be sick

Green belt: an area of fields and trees around a town

Color Idioms: Pink

Tickled pink: to be happy

In the pink: in good health -- this phrase hasn't always had this meaning

Pinking shears: scissors with serrated blades

Pink elephant: term to describe hallucinations during intoxication

See pink elephants: when someone sees things that are not really there, because they are lost in their imagination

Pinkie finger: the smallest finger on the human hand

Pink slip: notice that employment is ending

Pink collar: refers to a particular class of jobs once only filled by women

Color Idioms: Purple

Purple prose: an elaborately written poem or paragraph in literature

Purple heart: a medal awarded to a US soldier wounded in battle

Born to the purple: a person who is born into a noble or royal family

Lay it out in lavender: very cool, relaxed, and in control

Color Idioms: Red

Red carpet treatment: giving privileged treatment to an important person

Caught red-handed: clearly guilty

Red in the face: to become embarrassed

Beet red: dark red such as the color of beetroot, usually used to describe the color of a face of an embarrassed person

Red hot: something in demand usually because it is new and exciting.

Seeing red: to be angered

Red flag: a warning of danger or a signal that something is not working properly or correctly

Not worth a red cent: having no value

Red letter day: a memorable, joyful day

Red tape: excessive formalities in governmental process

Red ink: business jargon describing a financial loss. When accountants make physical entries into a financial ledger, red ink or font is used to show a negative number. Black ink is used to show that a number is positive or profitable.

Red-eye: A flight that leaves late at night and arrives early in the morning

In the red: a term to describe an economic loss

Red collar: Government workers of all types; derived from compensation received from red ink budget. They are principally white-collar, but perform blue-collar tasks with some regularity, such as engineers. May also be used to refer to old aged workers after retirement age.

Scarlet letter: a punitive mark of adultery that originated with the novel (1850) The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Red herring: something, especially a clue, that is or is intended to be misleading or distracting.

Roll out the red carpet / Red-carpet treatment: to greet a person with great respect, and give them a big, warm welcome

The silver screen: a term for the cinema

Born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth: born into a rich family

To be given something on a silver plate/platter: when something is offered to someone whole-heartedly (in a metaphorical sense)

Color Idioms: White

White as a sheet / White as a ghost: used to describe someone who is very pale due to a state of great fear, shock, pain, illness or anxiety

White Christmas: the appearance of snow on Christmas day

White collar: relating to the work done or those who work in an office or other professional environment

White elephant: a possession that no longer holds value for its owner

White flag / Raise a white flag: the signal of a peaceful surrender

White feather: a symbol of cowardliness

White goods: a description of household items, such as linens, towels, and appliances

White hot: extremely popular

White-knuckle: extreme fear or excitement

White lie: a harmless untruth usually told out of politeness

White noise: a constant background noise especially noise that drowns out other sounds

White sauce: a sauce made from stock, butter, flour and seasonings

White trash: a derogatory term referring to poor white people, mainly living in the southern United States usually in a degraded standard of living.

White wedding: a formal or semi-formal wedding where the bride wears white originating from a tradition that began when Queen Victoria wore a white lace dress at her wedding. The term now more generally means the entire Western wedding celebration.

Whitewash: to cover up or gloss over something or someone's faults or wrongdoings

Color Idioms: Yellow

Yellowbellied: a cowardly manner

Yellow fever: a disease involving high fever and jaundice that is common in the tropics

Yellow jack: a flag flown on a vessel to show that it is under quarantine

Yellowdog contract: a contract which denies a person the right to join a worker's union

Yellow journalism: newspaper articles thought to be sensationalized in order to sell more papers.

More Color Idioms

To be colorless: used to describe someone who lacks personality, and is really boring

Off color: when someone is not feeling their best, quite ill or uneasy

To give color to: to make a story or an explanation more credible, interesting or easier to believe.

Sail under false colors: to pretend to be something that one is not

Local color: Used to describe the traditional features of a place that give it its own character

A persons true colors: their actual character, often seen for the first time

Chase rainbows: to try to get or achieve something that is difficult or impossible

With flying colors: to complete something with great distinction, and excellent results

Discover More About These Popular Color Idioms

The Meaning of Once in a Blue Moon
The Truth About White Lies

Are there any color idioms I've left out? Is there an idiom you particularly like? Leave a comment below to let me know.

Feature Image Credit: Robert Anasch on Unsplash
Sources: Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster.com, MyEnglishTeacher.eu

Read Time: 8 min
  • Wanda says:

    We need something positive for yellow and orange.

    • Kate Smith says:

      I agree, Wanda. Yellow and orange are upbeat colors. One would think that these colors would have been used more in idioms that describe something positive.

  • Joyce Green says:

    I’d like to use some of these examples in our small church magazine. Would that be OK with you if I acknowledge your site? I’m the editor and am using the theme of colour for our next issue. I’m also including rainbows and stained glass.

    • Kate Smith says:

      Yes, you can use examples from this page. Credit is always appreciated. It sounds like it is going to be a colorful issue!

  • Mary says:

    red herring ….false clue

    • Kate Smith says:

      Thank you, Mary. I’ve added red herring to the list. That was a good catch…haha, I like idioms and puns, too. 🙂

  • Mary says:

    Blue collar worker…. civil service worker in the U.K.

    • Kate Smith says:

      Yes, we use blue color in the U.S., too but the meaning is a little different. Very good suggestion, thank you, Mary.

  • Mary says:

    Green Cross Code……….. Road safety code in U.K.

    • Kate Smith says:

      That’s a new one for me, Mary. After looking it up found that it is actually considered a brand of the National Road Safety Committee so not an idiom but it could be a good fit for me to mention under green as a brand color. Thanks.

  • Kim says:

    Poor Orange. The forgotten color.

    • Kate Smith says:

      So true, Kim. Poor orange.

  • Paco says:

    1º.- sweet baby james (James Taylor):

    Deep greens and blues are the colours I choose

    What does it mean?

    2º.- innocent when you dream (Tom Waits):

    the fields are soft and green

    What does it mean?

    • Kate Smith says:

      Thanks for the comment, Paco. I like both of those songs lyrics and it would be interesting to me to take a look at the meaning of color used in songs.

  • Kristy says:

    Thanks for sharing!!!!

    • Kate Smith says:

      You are very welcome, Kristy

  • E. says:

    This was such a wonderful list. The only addition I was able to think of — and it was maybe mostly covered by “greener pastures” anyway — is “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Really, though, great read.

    • Kate Smith says:

      The two are similar but I think greener pastures should be in the list, too. Thank you, E.

  • Julie Perrot says:

    There were so many ‘colour’ phrases that I’d forgotten, and your site is an invaluable information source….thank you!

    • Kate Smith says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Julie.

  • What an interesting list – thanks for sharing this with us, Kate! We forget how very many idioms include COLOR.

    • Kate Smith says:

      Thanks, Kristie. It is nice to share with another color & design lover. So glad you enjoyed!

      I’m sure it is far from complete but it was great fun to put together what I have so far. Language and color are both fascinating topics so when they come together, I can easily get hooked. It is apparent how we started using some of these but there are other phrases I’d love to research to find out more about how they came into common usage.

  • jessica wright says:

    Appreciation to my father who informed me on the topic of color for your web site. It is genuinely remarkable.

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