Here in the northeast this time of year is known as Mud Season, characterized by large swaths of brown and gray, broken up here and there by shoots of green that you need to be paying attention to catch. In these pre-spring days, any color at all is appreciated, and Alan Kennedy’s Color/Language Project is especially welcome: a fairly exhaustive list of color idioms in different languages to compare and contrast, supplemented with a fascinating piece on linguistic facts about color.
In the essay, Kennedy looks at the ways in which different cultures see and express color—for instance, many languages don’t have separate words for “blue” and “green,” or “gray” and “brown.” On the other hand, some have completely different linguistic terms for light and dark reds, or yellowish as opposed to bluish greens. If you ever sat down with the big box of Crayolas and tried to figure out the difference between the Blue Violet and the Violet Blue, this should be right up your alley (although it won’t answer the question). It’s somehow not all that surprising that in Gaelic and Welsh, the terms for “gray” and “green” overlap.
The list of idioms is a lot of fun. What to make, for instance, of the fact that a pornographic film—what would be called a “blue movie” here—is una pellicola rossa, or a red film, in Italian, a red movie as well in Korean, a yellow movie in Mandarin, and in Spanish a dirty joke is a green joke, un chiste verde. And although in most languages “green” translates as inexperienced, in Japanese a newbie has a blue butt and in Finnish is yellow-beaked. Even better, in French a blanc-bec, or white beak, is an inexperienced but pretentious person—a fine, and very usable term. Green is the color of envy in a number of languages, but in Finnish the jealous are mustasukkainen, black-socked. And while our outcasts are black sheep, the Russian equivalent is белая ворона, or “white crow.”
In fact, some of my favorites are idioms that don’t happen in English at all. A Spanish expression for pale, blanca como la nalga de una monja, translates as “white like a nun’s butt cheek.” In German a grüne Welle, or green wave, means to only hit green traffic lights while driving—a string of good luck—and in French rire jaune, to “laugh yellow,” means give a forced, insincere laugh. Oddly enough, while the expression “white nights,” for sleepless nights, exists in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Hebrew, it never made it over to these shores.
There are discussions of Kennedy’s color project on MetaFilter (entitled “Don’t Shit in the Blue Cabinet!”, which sounds like a weird Noam Chomsky construct) and in the always-lively Comments section of Languagehat, where I first discovered it. And if this leaves your gray matter tickled pink, over at the Guardian today Peter Forbes—author of Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage—has posted a list of his top ten books on color. How often does that kind of coincidence come along? (Hint: once in a blue moon.)
(And while we’re vaguely on the subject, don’t forget that the Orange Prize longlist has been announced…)
(Photo, “Choose One Color,” by szeretlek_ma.)