Alan Kennedy’s Color/Language Project has a set of Color Idioms in Different Languages (which you can see as a spreadsheet here) and an essay Linguistic Facts About Color; it’s well worth checking out even if (as was pointed out by various people in the MetaFilter thread where I got it) it has a lot of errors.


  1. According to anthropologist Harold Conklin (which I found quoted apud John Lyons apud David Batchelor in this book (which I recommend)), Hanunó’o doesn’t really have white, black, red, and green (contrary to Kennedy’s article). Rather the native terms we are translating as those English words represent extremes of two independent continuous dimensions: light vs. dark, and… wet vs. dry (think shiny vs. matte, or ripe vs. “green”).
    The point is that our abstract category of “color” (how do we define it, hue+saturation+value?) is not necessarily universal. Some languages might not distinguish these properties from texture, reflectiveness and other material characteristics.
    (I have not read the original sources, so you know, grain of salt and all.)

  2. Bathrobe says:

    There are a lot of mistakes. There are also a lot of things that are misleading. For example, some of the Japanese examples (such as 青年 ‘blue years’) are basically derived from Chinese. Although the meaning of ‘blue’ is there because of the kanji, it’s difficult to really interpret this as a Japanese colour expression, any more than we should interpret ‘cyanide’ as an English colour expression.
    It would be nice if the actual Japanese and Chinese expressions were shown. I’m trying to think what a ‘white lie’ is in Japanese. Perhaps the expression being referred to is 白々しいshirajirashii, which means ‘brazen’ (in the sense of a brazen lie). I do know that the normal expression for a ‘bare-faced lie’ is not ‘white lie’ but ‘red lie’ (真っ赤な嘘makka na uso).

  3. Bathrobe says:

    Sorry, 白々しい shirajirashii is an adjective meaning ‘brazen’, but it’s not normally used with the word for lie. It’s used to describe the words or actions of a person. If someone makes the judgement shirajirashii (‘brazen’), it means that he/she thinks the person is lying blatantly.

  4. Bathrobe says:

    I stand corrected, 白々しい嘘 (shirajirashii uso) can be used to describe a brazen lie. However, I would still question using it as set expression. The word 白々しい (shirajirashii) just means ‘brazen’; it could be used to qualify the word 嘘 uso, but not necessarily so. This is unlike 真っ赤な嘘 makka na uso, which is unquestionably a set expression.

  5. There’s sort of a mention of this in the article, but Gaelic colour words depend much more on saturation than on hue (apparently Welsh is similar). Somewhere I have a copy of a scholarly article on this topic.
    So “dearg” means a bright red (also used as an general intensifier) while “rua” is more reddish-brown, like red hair. “Glas” could correspond to English blue, green or grey, but all with very low saturation.
    In Irish “fear dubh”, literally “black man”, would mean someone with black hair, whereas an African would be called “fear gorm”, literally a blue man, but to the Celtic eye that was how an African skin colour would be described.
    In English we have some strange terms like Red Indian and calling Asians “yellow”, when these terms do not do a very good job of describing the sking colour of the people in question.
    In Irish a Red Indian is “Indiach Dearg”, where dearg is a colour like the Coca-Cola trademark. But “Indiach Rua” would mean a red-haired Indian.
    Of course there was little contact between the Irish and Native Americans. One interesting exception is the book “Rothai Mor an tSaoil”, which I keep starting to read and then get distracted by various practical but less interesting commitments. Maybe this coming summer I will be able to get all the way through it.

  6. In Brazilian Portuguese “negro” and “preto” are both names for black, with the former sounding more formal and covering perhaps a wider range of “dark”. I find it interesting that “negro” is the neutral word for a black person while “preto” might be considered racist or offensive—just the opposite of English negro/nigger vs. black.

  7. Sorry I meant “skin”, not “skiing” or other possible interpretations. I have a fractured wrist in a cast, so my typing is unreliable.
    Since I’m posting again. let me add another thought.
    I live in California, where we have a lot of people of Asian descent: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, etc.
    Some of these people have skin that is somewhat darker than say your average Irishman. But I have yet to encounter anyone whose skin colour could be described as “yellow” according to my understanding of colour.
    I would describe the skin colour of a healing bruise (and I have some–don’t ask) as yellow, according to my own Anglophone colour sense (and it might be “buí” in Irish), but that’s a lot different from any kind of natural skin colour.
    I wonder when and why the colour yellow was applied to Asians. Can anyone provide some background info?

  8. You and your readers might also enjoy the results of xkcd color survey.

  9. That survey is very interesting (and funny)—thanks.

  10. Thanks for xkcd link, really enjoyable! The spreadsheet is full of silly errors in its Russian section too, still a nice try, made more funny by some of the oopses. Like the “белый пушистый” which in actuality seems to refer to a certain snotty frog LOL. And more tellingly, the missing “желтый дом” 😉

  11. “just the opposite of English negro/nigger vs. black.”
    I would hardly consider “negro” and “nigger” to be equivalent, at least in my generation (born in the 60s). But I wouldn’t be surprised if today’s college students are starting to consider them equally offensive. My guess is that “nigger” is probably becoming less offensive and “negro” more so.

  12. dearieme says:

    While “nigger” is undoubtedly offensive – because intended to be offensive – “negro” is surely better than the lengthy “of sub-Saharan African descent”?

  13. I’m really out of my depth here, but judging by what I see in pop media and from a quick look in wikipedia, “nigger” is not necessarily offensive. It might be an affectionate intra-group term, especially when used by black people speaking African-American Vernacular (cf. “nigga”). It seems to me to be undergoing reclamation by the community, like “queer”.
    I wouldn’t know the nuances, but in any case my point was just that the words derived from Latin “nigrum” (“negro”, “nigger”, “nigga”) are problem-words, while the native word “black” is neutral; and that this happens to be the mirror situation of Portuguese, where “negro” ([‘ne.grʊ]) is neutral but “preto” might be sensitive under pretty much the same situations as “nigger”.
    Ok, I’ll admit that wasn’t a particularly interesting bit of trivia. It looked cooler in my head.

  14. Thanks to everyone here who checked out the color language project and the color idioms. We rely on public entries to the site to both add new idioms and correct any inaccuracies. If you see an inaccuracy or gap there, please let us know via the public additions form. The entries are constantly updated and vetted by newcomers to the site, it is ever-changing and expanding.
    – Alan Kennedy

  15. FYI the site has a new location on the web now:

    As before, if something looks wrong, funny, or strange be part of the solution and write to the site – it takes only a minute!

  16. Thanks, I updated the link in the post accordingly.

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