School Blog

Painting the town red

Sunday, 05 November 2017

Let’s paint the town red

Are you the kind of person who sees things in black and white? Do phrasal verbs make you feel blue? Do you feel green with envy when your classmate gets a better result in the exam?

  One way to sound more like a native speaker is to learn a few idioms, and why not start with some expressions about colours?

But be careful of using colourful language! That can be another way of saying bad language!

So where shall we start?

There are hundreds of different colour idioms, so let’s narrow it down and just go through the rainbow:


Have you ever done something you shouldn’t and been caught red-handed ? If so you might have been red-faced . Red is nature’s colour of danger – that is not unique to English – but it is also the colour of bureaucracy: too much red tape , and of debt. You don’t want to be in the red but in the black.

So, are all red phrases negative? No! To paint the town red means to go out and have a good time partying.


There is not a great number of orange-based idioms that spring to mind, so let’s just mention the title of the TV drama series, “Orange is the new black”. An interesting phrase: if a colour is described as the new black it means that it has recently become popular – in the way that black has always been popular.

Also, while we’re here: it’s a little known fact that when the word “orange” entered our language (and by the way, the fruit came first, not the colour), it was closer to the original Arabic: “a norange” rather than “an orange”. True story.


The colour of cowardice in English speaking cultures. You may have seen old cowboy films where someone – usually the baddie – is referred to as “yellow-bellied”. He is being accused of being a chicken .


If you are described as “ green ”, it is not a great compliment. It means you lack experience. But if the boss is impressed, then s/he may give you the green light to go for a promotion. That might make your colleagues green with envy !

A more positive green phrase is to be green-fingered . This means you are a good gardener – good at making plants grow.


A great line from The Simpsons: “Playing the blues is not about making yourself feel better, but making everyone else feel as bad as you.” To feel blue is used in American English to mean sad. More common on this side of the Atlantic: to have blue blood, which means to come from a royal family. And if something happens out of the blue, then it happens suddenly or unexpectedly.

Indigo and violet

Erm... Maybe going through the rainbow wasn’t such a good idea as there are very few idioms related to these last two colours. A shrinking violet is someone who is very shy, but that refers to the flower rather than the colour. To hit a purple patch means to be enjoying a period of good fortune, but that’s about it.

Black and white

× To wave a white flag is an internationally recognised way of surrendering. More particular usage of this colour might be: to be as white as a ghost , meaning to turn very pale upon hearing some shocking or frightful news.

Most cultures agree that it is preferable to tell the truth than to lie, but what about those little lies that don’t really hurt anyone, in fact might even make someone feel better.

“Yes Grandma, this tuna and broccoli ice cream is delicious!” A classic white lie .

What is the opposite of a white lie? A black lie? People don’t tend to say this. In fact in modern, politically-correct Britain, people have become careful about using “black” as a metaphorical adjective at all. Some people think twice about referring to the black economy , the black market, even the black sheep of the family due to the possible racist undertones.

Some nursery schools have banned the use of the song “Baa baa black sheep” as it supposedly refers to black slavery in the United States.

Less controversial, but just as painful, if someone punches you in the face you might get a black eye ... and everyone wants their bank balance to be in the black .

So that’s a start. We’ve looked at some of the most common colour idioms in the English language.

We would love to hear from you if you think we have missed any obvious ones, or maybe there are some colourful phrases in your language that would be interesting to share. Please do...

Until next time,

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