My friend and former colleague Marian Westbrook came up with the idea for today’s foray into language — the color idioms that “color” our speech. We associate October with pink because of the raised awareness of breast cancer in women and men, so a look at “pink” and other words of color seems timely.
Many websites list these color idioms, and other languages have them, too, of course. One site defines idiom as “a phrase or an expression that has a figurative and sometimes literal meaning.” The term derives from the Latin idiomi, meaning “special property” and from a similar Ancient Greek word that translates as “special feature, phrasing, or peculiarity.” This source says that English may claim 25,000 idiomatic expressions.
Phrases that incorporate pink include “to be in the pink” (enjoying good health as evidenced by a healthy complexion), “seeing pink elephants,” (hallucinating from too much alcohol) and “to be tickled pink,” the last because excitement or anticipation can cause us to be flushed or pink in the face. Close upon pink is the deeper hue red used in expressions like “to be in the red,” (to be in debt), “to catch someone red-handed” (as if the miscreant has turned red in the face from embarrassment?), “to see through rose-colored glasses,” “to see red” and “to go through red tape.” This last term, according to the “QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins” by Robert Hendrickson, comes from the practice in the past of lawyers and government officials to tie their papers together with red ribbons. Red tape refers to the “excessive formality and rigid adherence to rules and regulations that characterize the dealings of these officials.”
Football watchers may know the term red dog when linebackers “hound” or “dog” the quarterback, crashing through the line to break up a play. Invented in the 1960s, “red dog” was the signal if one linebacker was to crack the line; “blue dog” if two linebackers tried; and “green dog” if all three linebackers charged.
Red herring, meaning to confuse an issue by dragging something irrelevant into it, derives from the practice of escaping criminals to drag strong-smelling cured herring behind their path to confuse bloodhounds chasing after them. Red-letter days refers to the marking in red on calendars of holidays, festivals and saints’ days, a practice from the 15th century. We still rejoice in these days off from routine and work. Sometimes evil people are called red-haired villains because in the past red-haired people were thought to be associated with Judas, believed to have had red hair. The fat of dead red-haired men was used as an ingredient in poisons and fish baits in the past, and indeed some notorious redheads include Salomé, Lizzie Borden, Nero, Henry VIII and General Custer. Then there are good redheads like William the Conqueror, Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I, Presidents Washington and Jefferson, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Harold “Red” Grange and others.
Other familiar phrases with red include “to paint the town red,” “roll out the red carpet,” “redneck” and “to see the red light,” meaning to recognize approaching danger.
Blue appears in “out of the blue”; “a blue-eyed boy,” meaning one in favor with someone in authority; “a bolt from the blue”; “blue in the face”; “once in a blue moon”; and “men in blue,” meaning police officials from the color of their uniforms. Blue movies take that term from a series of risqué French books entitled “La Bibliothequé Bleu” and from the blue dresses of prostitutes when the books were written in the early 19th century. Blue laws refer to the practice of covering with a blue tarp certain items in grocery stores forbidden to be sold on Sundays. “Feeling blue,” meaning a state of depression or sadness, may be a shortening of the 18th century expression, “to have the blue devils” or low spirits. Washington Irving may have been the first author to have used the term in 1807 in his work “Salmagundi.” The term “blue devils” was also associated with delirium tremens, and today, blue devil is used in the drug culture to mean sodium amytal, the color of the pill and the effects of this narcotic.
Blue is also associated with the color of approaching death and the stages of drunkenness. The blues applies to melancholy jazz at the end of the 19th century from the sad black prison and funeral songs of slavery and oppression. A more positive use of blue occurs in blue ribbon, taken from Britain’s highest order of knighthood in the Most Noble Order of the Garter. The badge one is awarded, a dark blue velvet ribbon edged with gold, is worn below the left knee. This motto, Honi soit qui mal y pense (“Shame to him who thinks evil of it”), is purported to be the words King Edward III said at a royal ball when he was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury. Realizing that her garter had slipped from her leg, he swooped it up and put it on his own leg to save her from embarrassment. He established the award in 1344, and the blue ribbon came to symbolize the highest honor in any endeavor in England and in the United States.
Language cannot be said to be “colorless” when we consider the number of color idioms we use daily — black, (“black out,” “black sheep,” “in the black,” “black arts,” “blackball,” “black book,” “black hole,” “blacklist”); golden, (“golden opportunity,” “golden handshake,” “goldbrick,” “gold digger,” “golden rule”); green, (“to be green,” “green with envy,” “get the green light” or “give the green light,” “green belt,” “green thumb,” and “the grass is greener on the other side”).
Yes, we all are “people of color” in our use of expressions to “color” our speech. Perhaps one day we will all be color-blind and see our fellow human beings of all colors taking this journey of life with one another.
Thanks to my colorful friend Marian for the topic and to my cousin Robert for the QPB!
Liz Meador is an adjunct instructor at Wayne Community College. Questions or suggestions for column topics may be sent to email@example.com