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An exploration of colourful English

An exploration of colourful English

Usually, the English phrase “colourful language” would be used to describe an outburst in which someone was uttering obscenities to lend impact to what they were saying. We would like to discuss colourful language of a different kind. There are many idioms in the English language which reference colours and you may be familiar with at least some of them. But what do they mean and what are their origins?

Caught red-handed

caught red handed

To be caught red-handed is to be caught in the act of doing something illegal or morally wrong. Example: The surveillance system ensured that the bank robbers were caught red-handed. The use of this phrase dates back to 15th-century Scottish law. It first featured in an Act of Parliament of 1432 which stipulated that “the offender be taken reid hand, may be persewed, and put to the knawledge of ane Assise, befoir the Barron or Landeslord of the land or ground, quhidder the offender be his tennent, unto quhom the wrang is done or not.” The mention of the colour red was a reference to the fact that a killer caught in the act would have blood on their hands.

Paint the town red

To paint the town red is to exhibit riotous behaviour and has come to mean simply enjoying an exuberant night out. Example: Let’s go out tonight and paint the town red. Most early examples of the phrase in print appeared in the United States. This strongly suggests that the expression originated in America. However, its precise history isn’t known. It is thought that the phrase might be a reference to the use of brothels and to men behaving as if an entire town were a red light district. Another theory is that the expression refers to an occasion in 1837 when the Marquis of Waterford and his friends ran riot in the town of Melton Mowbray, England, painting the toll bar and several buildings red.

In the red

To be in the red is to be in debt. Example: After paying all of my bills, I found myself in the red. The expression refers to the fact that banks and businesses often use red print to signify a financial loss or negative balance.

Red Tape

Red tape is an expression which refers to excessively complex rules or annoying bureaucracy that impedes action or decision making. Example: There was a great deal of red tape to plough through before we could gain planning permission. It is believed that the use of this phrase dates back to the 16th-century Spanish administration of Charles V. He initiated the practise of using red tape to bind the most important dossiers that required the immediate attention of the Council of State. Other documents and dossiers were bound with string.

Red Letter Day

A red letter day is a day of particular significance. Example: next Monday is a red letter day because I have an interview for my dream job. This expression is a reference to early church calendars. These marked important dates in red. The term came into common use after 1549 when the first book of common prayer was published and included a calendar which featured holy days marked in red.

White elephant

A white elephant is a burdensome possession – something which is expensive but useless or troublesome. Example: That fountain you bought for your pond is a bit of a white elephant. The phrase is derived from a legendary trick employed by the kings of Siam (Thailand). White elephants were sacred animals in Siam and came in handy if the king wanted to punish someone he didn’t like. He would gift them a white elephant which seemed to be an impressive reward. However, the elephants were very expensive to care for and so would lead to financial ruin.

White Lie

Cartoon person in a car with animals

A white lie is a harmless lie that someone tells to prevent someone else from being scared or insulted. In other words, it is an attempt to deceive but with good intentions. Example: You look lovely in that dress. It is very flattering. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this phrase dates back to a 14th-century letter which included the sentence, “I do assure you he is vnsusspected of any vntruithe or oder notable cryme (excepte a white lye) wiche is taken for a Small fawte in thes partes.” The colour white is symbolic of purity and features in a number of English phrases which refer to good intentions. 

Out of the blue

If something arrives or happens out of the blue, it is an unexpected event which occurs without warning. Example: The car appeared out of the blue and drove straight into me. This phase evolved from the idea that it is incredibly unlikely that a lightning bolt would come from a clear blue sky. The similar phrase “a bolt from the blue” also references lightning.

Feeling blue

To feel blue or to have the blues is to feel sad or depressed. Example: I was feeling blue yesterday after I heard that I had lost my job. This phrase appears to boast multiple origins. The adjective blue, meaning sad, featured in Chaucer’s Complaint of Mars which was written around 1385. The noun blues was first recorded in 1741 and may have referred to a blue devil, a term for a sorrowful demon. In each case, the use of blue to mean sad is probably a reference to the fact that illness or extreme fear can cause skin to develop a blueish hue.

Once in a blue moon

Cartoon person in a car with animals

If something happens once in a blue moon, it is a very rare event. Example: I eat meat once in a blue moon. A blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month. This phenomenon only happens once every two or three years. Most blue moons aren’t actually blue as the moon only appears to be blue in certain conditions such as after a volcanic eruption when ash has been thrown into the atmosphere. 

Grey area

A grey area is something which is unclear, without precise rules or a matter of debate. Example: It would be best to consult a lawyer regarding whether dating a co-worker is appropriate as this is a grey area. Situations which are governed by clear, unambiguous laws are usually referred to as being black and white. The colour grey is a combination of black and white. Grey areas are therefore those where clear distinctions cannot be made or where the rights and wrongs of the situation cannot be easily clarified.

Tickled Pink

cartoon pink giraffe

To be tickled pink is to be extremely happy. Example: I was tickled pink when I opened my Birthday present. This phrase was first recorded in 1922. It alludes to the fact that your face will turn pink if you are you are laughing because you are being tickled.

Over to you!

What colourful idioms do you use? Perhaps you have green fingers or maybe you are the black sheep of the family! Colours lend depth of meaning to sayings and phrases. We’d be tickled pink if you’d let us know about any weird, wonderful or obscure yet colourful expressions that you use. Even if they are your own inventions!

#Colour #EnglishPhrases #languagefocus

James Myatt

5 min read

Nov 9, 2020



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