32. THE COLOUR OF LANGUAGE
The use of colours to express emotions is pretty
universal. Evoking a colour can be
a striking way of conveying a vivid impression of the mood or physical
appearance of an individual. Green with envy, red with rage, white with
fear, feeling blue. All languages
do this since colours have strong connotations (even if, in different cultures,
colours are not always invested with the same symbolic meaning). There's even a
colour idiom song.
The black and white conundrum
On a more serious note, recent events around the globe involving racism have, quite literally, coloured the way we now use or have become reluctant to use the word 'black' in our (idiomatic) expressions. The formerly familiar negative 'black sheep', 'black looks' or 'blacken one's record' are simply untenable any longer given their racist connotation, intended or not. In the Netherlands 'zwarte Pieten' (black Peters), Saint Nicholas' helpers, have become 'Pieten' of many colours - but not black. The George Floyd incident and Black Lives Matter movement ensured an end to the blackness, although a survey undertaken in 2020 revealed that 78 per cent did not see Zwarte Piet as a racist figure while 17 per cent did. However, the words black and white can simply represent colours, and they are widely used that way in many idioms. Black sheep and white lies are neither anchored in or intended as racial discrimination.
Many idioms use a colour because the thing they refer to is that colour: someone with bruises is called black and blue because those are the colours that fresh bruises are. The idiom in the black, meaning to have money in your account, comes from the colour of ink: black ink was for positive balances in ledgers, and red ink for negative ones (so 'in the red' means to be in debt). Because the colours black and white represent opposites, some idioms also use them to talk about contrasts. If you say something is 'right there in black and white' you are talking about something that is clearly written, black ink on white paper, about which there can be no mistake.
A colour palette in your mind
Humans have always associated colours with ideas, but not all colour associations are common to all cultures. For instance, after Queen Victoria wore a white wedding dress in the early 19th century, white became associated with bridal purity (=moral goodness) in many English-speaking countries. In those same countries, black is worn at funerals, and red can be associated with questionable morality (red light districts). In many cultures in Asia, however, white is a colour for funerals, and red symbolises good luck.
Green, for example can have both a positive and negative connotation. Your garden looks amazing. You clearly have green fingers! or A brand new care home has been given the green light by the council. Equally, Roland's off to the Bahamas for two weeks and we're all green with envy in the office! Blue, too, can be positive. One day, completely out of the blue, Dave and his wife dropped by and we reconnected for the first time in years. Then again, in another context, You can ask him to clean up his room till you're blue in the face, but he refuses to do it. And let's complete the primary colours here with On her birthday, he rolled out the red carpet for her, taking her to the finest restaurant in town. Mind you, in the event that he forgot her birthday, she saw red and went off to stay with her mother!
We could not end a blog written in the Netherlands without paying appropriate homage to the colour orange. It's a phenomenon recognised by a global, let alone national, public. Whether it's a hockey team winning an Olympic title, the heir apparent to the world Formula One crown or the country's royal family, the Oranjes, whose head just happens to have the right shade of orange to embody the notion.
In what seems to have become a somewhat grey-tarnished world with its pandemics, natural disasters and geopolitical chest-beating by silverback despots, it's good to remember now and then that we are surrounded by a world of colour. According to Wikipedia, it has been estimated that humans can distinguish roughly ten million different colours. I dread to think how many idioms that translates into!