English is a colourful language

English is called a “colourful” language because of its ability for graphic description, description of everything from hockey games to warfare.

So, we have players who “assault” both the goal and each other. And we have fearful, but brave, soldiers inside Sherman tanks where, “Sleep was almost impossible…The smack of bullets, shrapnel, and debris on the outside-armour always held the threat of something larger and more penetrating” (Monte Casino, by Peter Caddick-Adams).

Our language is colourful in yet another way. It abounds with phrases which use real colour-words to express what’s happening, how it happens, or what one’s mood is.

A quick glance through any publication turns up more than one colour metaphor. For example, on June 25, it was reported everywhere that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, referring to bail-out talks between Greece and the European Union, declared, “We will not be blackmailed.” That same day, a Globe and Mail headline told us, “Quebec given green light to new mine.” The next day, we found, “grey area,” “blackmail,” and “whitewash.”


Such language is so common it almost goes unnoticed. When did you last take note of a colour metaphor? When did you use one?

In fact, we all know these metaphors and all of us employ them. We do this so often, most have become clichés.

Take this little test to see how many such expressions you can identify without even trying. Just fill in the blanks.

1. Silence is _____________.

2. Painting the town ________.

3. A bolt from the__________ .

4. Once in a ______ moon.

5. Every cloud has a _______ lining.

6. Tickled _____________.

7. Given the _________ slip.

8. ______ carpet treatment.

9. The ________ sheep of the family.

10. Government __________ tape.

11. Caught _________-handed.

12. ______ with envy.

13. As good as ___________.

14. On a _______ list.

15. The __________ rule.

16. Hired a ________horn.

17. __________-hearted villain.

18. ________as a sheet.

19. ________chip stocks.

20. _______-eye flight.

21. In a _____funk.

22. A _______ thumb.

23. Born with a ______ spoon.

24. True-___________.

25. Talked a ________ streak.

We have red light districts, blue stocking laws, green political parties, purple prose, yellow-bellied cowards, red-hot news, and white-water rafting.

We even drag the animal universe into this world of colour. Everyone knows of white elephants, red herrings, bluebirds of happiness, black dogs of depression, and that infamous black sheep.

Many expressions are also very old. For example, black sheep dates to the 1700s, and greenhorn is from the late 1800s. Redneck emerged in the early 1800s. Others are recent. Red-eye flight began only in the 1950s. Blue chip is early 20th century.

Don’t get in anyone’s black books and do have a red-letter day.

Answers: 1. golden; 2. red; 3. blue; 4. blue; 5. silver; 6. pink; 7. pink; 8. red; 9. black; 10. red; 11. red; 12. green; 13. gold; 14. black; 15. golden; 16. green; 17. black; 18. white; 19. blue; 20. red; 21. blue; 22. green; 23. silver; 24. blue; 25. blue.