Colourful Expressions

Language is full of colourful expressions. I like to think that is because colour is so descriptive — so endlessly evocative. We often, without even thinking about it, use colour to describe a mood, a feeling, or a particular state of mind. Likely that’s because colours can instantly bring a strong, almost visceral visual to our mind’s eye. Think of Holly Golightly, the renowned character in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, who goes beyond just having “the blues” to what she dubs “the mean reds.”

Colours can provide the perfect metaphor for a very specific state of mind — think of how often we might say we are “feeling blue.” More abstract concepts can also be portrayed with colours — if someone is described as being a “green-eyed monster” we instantly know it means they are expressing envy.

In today’s blog post, I thought we’d celebrate the descriptive and evocative nature of colour by taking a look at the history of some of these colourful metaphors and expressions.

Green-Eyed Monster / Green with Envy
William Shakespeare’s celebrated command of the English language was so profound, he contributed many phrases, idioms and even words to our current vocabulary, including expressions such as “in a pickle”, “heart of gold” and “the world is my oyster”. The Bard is also attributed with the phrase “the green-eyed monster”, which he used to allude to jealousy in Othello, when his character Iago said: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock…” Shakespeare also used the term in The Merchant of Venice, with the line: “And shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy!”

Tickled Pink 
This delightful expression tends to convey a delighted state of mind — meaning the person who is “tickled pink” is very happy or pleased by a situation. It may also may have its roots in Shakespeare, as it was used in Shakespeare’s famous ill-fated love story Romeo and Juliet, written back in 1597, when Mercurio said “Why, I am the very pinke of curtesie.” The concept of being “tickled pink” could also have been derived from the literal notion of turning pink in the face from laughter while being tickled.

Got the Blues 
The term “got the blues” or “feeling” blue is universally acknowledged as denoting a sad or even depressed state of mind. Many believe this term to describe a state of emotional unhealthiness stems from physical symptoms of disease, where the skin of someone who has a serious physical illness can often take on a blueish tinge. Some also attribute the term to deepwater sailing ships from days of old, where it is said that when a ship lost its captain or any officers during the journey, it would fly blue flags to acknowledge their passing. The closeness of deep blue to black on the colour scale could also be a reason that it tends to be associated with sadness or mourning. There is also a link to Greek mythology, where blue was related to rain or storms, and the god Zeus was said to make it rain when he was sad and crying.

Red Flag
The term “red flag” is often used today as a less-than-serious reference to warning signs or impending danger, whether it be in the workplace or the dating world. For example, someone might say, “The gaps in his resumé raised a few red flags” or “His behaviour on their first date raised a few red flags.” Of course, red flags are raised in many instances as a warning of actual physical danger. On the railroads, a red semaphore flag or light means an immediate stop is imminent, and red flags often mean there’s a danger of fire, bad conditions on a beach, or to indicate that outdoor shooting of some kind is taking place nearby. The earliest cited reference to “red flag” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates back to a 1602, where at that time a red flag was used by military forces to indicate that they were preparing for battle.

While we may not all be wordsmiths like Shakespeare, it seems that colour makes us all a little more creative. And I just love how it can be woven throughout our daily language with these idioms — which demonstrate the evocative power of colour.

Lauren DiCioccio_pg-70-List-of-Contributors1
Artist Lauren DiCioccio, who takes pages from magazines such as VOGUE and Vanity Fair and reinterprets the text into colourful works she describes as “Braille for the color-inclined.” Seen on blog Aesthetics of Joy.

Screenshot 2014-03-30 11.22.06

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