Searching for a colourful lingua franca

August 23, 1996

An art school head is tickled pink with the results of an international study he has conducted into the everyday use of colour names in popular phrases.

Colours used in phrases such as "green with envy" or "red with rage" are used in significantly different ways in different countries, David Buss, head of Plymouth University's Exeter School of Arts and Design, has discovered.

For instance, while in English culture blue is the colour of pornography, Italian pornographic films are red: film a lucci rosse; and in French and Spanish, dirty jokes are green: un raconteur des vertes and verdo laga.

Meanwhile, though being drunk is "being blue", blauw zin in the Netherlands, the French use black to denote too much alcohol, noircir; while the British see pink elephants.

Presenting a paper on The Use of Colour Names in Idiomatic and Colloquial Language to an international conference in Sweden, Mr Buss explained: "What I'm trying to establish is the extent to which colour names crop up in the popular phrases and sayings of other countries and cultures to see if there is any universality about the manner in which they are used."

His research discovered that green perhaps offered a more considerable range of associations across different languages than any other colour.

It is used in anything from the French un vieillard encore vert meaning "a dirty old man" to the German grune Witwe "a lonely suburban housewife".

Green is also particularly diverse in the way it is interpreted.

Mr Buss commented: "If I am green about the gills, then I am probably feeling rather sick; but if it is my fingers which are green, this signifies my natural talent is gardening.

"An overall sense of being green could be a sign of my inexperience, but equally it could be a manifestation of my covetous state of mind, as in 'green with envy'.

"But if I am only slightly green, then I am less of a fool than you might have assumed: 'not so green as I'm cabbage looking'."

But it is not always easy to determine someone's emotional state by the colours used in a phrase.

For instance, while being "in the pink" indicates being in good health, astonishment or indignation may be shown in the phrase "strike me pink". Meanwhile, someone who is pleased or flattered may be described as "tickled pink".

Orange is an enigma in that it does not appear in any of our popular English phrases, except where the word refers to the fruit, rather than the colour. Even words like Orangemen and Orange Order do not fit the bill, since they derive from William of Orange.

The search for common uses of colour has unearthed at least one phrase which appears to qualify. The English phrase to see something through rose-coloured spectacles has a Polish equivalent: widziec swiat przez rozowe okulary.

In German, it is alles durch die rosate Brille sehen; in Dutch, door een rose bril kijken; while the Italians talk of seeing everything pink vedere tutto rosa.

Mr Buss says he is determined to continue his research, and he would welcome further authenticated examples from around the world.

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