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
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
You missed one idiom, “shades of a different color”
I loved it!
We need something positive for yellow and orange.
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.
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.
Yes, you can use examples from this page. Credit is always appreciated. It sounds like it is going to be a colorful issue!
red herring ….false clue
Thank you, Mary. I’ve added red herring to the list. That was a good catch…haha, I like idioms and puns, too. 🙂
Blue collar worker…. civil service worker in the U.K.
Yes, we use blue color in the U.S., too but the meaning is a little different. Very good suggestion, thank you, Mary.
Green Cross Code……….. Road safety code in U.K.
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.
Poor Orange. The forgotten color.
So true, Kim. Poor orange.
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?
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.
Thanks for sharing!!!!
You are very welcome, Kristy
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.
The two are similar but I think greener pastures should be in the list, too. Thank you, E.
There were so many ‘colour’ phrases that I’d forgotten, and your site is an invaluable information source….thank you!
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.
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.
Appreciation to my father who informed me on the topic of color for your web site. It is genuinely remarkable.