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Speak in colours!

Updated Wednesday 16th September 2015

What does 'rire jaune' or 'avoir un bleu' mean? Learn French idioms that use colour to convey a particular mood or impression of a person or situation. 

There is an expression in French to denote how an individual may have tastes and ways of looking at things that are not shared by others, ‘des goûts et des couleurs, on ne discute pas’ (‘each to their own’).

Whilst this expression suggests that we should never quibble over colours, chromatic terms can nonetheless provide a rich source of discussion for language learners who want to extend their knowledge of idiomatic expressions in the target language. Indeed, there are many descriptions and metaphorical expressions containing words that indicate colour (e.g. in English we can say ‘I’m feeling blue’ or ‘I saw red’). Evoking a colour can be a striking way of conveying a vivid impression of the mood or physical appearance of an individual. All languages do this since colours have strong connotations (even if in different cultures, colours are not always invested with the same symbolic meaning, however we will not be looking at this here). In European languages, we can find many similar expressions that incorporate colours, ‘red with rage’; ‘white as snow’ or ‘the black market’, for instance. There are, of course, differences in each country and these idiosyncratic descriptions are fun to explore.

The following phrases are illustrative of expressions in French that use colour. I have chosen to leave out expressions that are similar or the same in English and focus on ones that you might find tricky. A literal translation will not always help you work out the meaning.  Amusez-vous bien!

White

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Un marriage blanc- (lit. a white marriage), a sham marriage/ a marriage of convenience

Montrer patte blanche- (lit. to show a white paw), to show one’s credentials

De but en blanc- (lit. from the target in white), point blank

Red

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Être la lanterne rouge- (lit. to be the red lantern), to be last

Rouge comme une écrevisse- (lit. to be red like a crayfish),  red as a lobster/tomato

Se fâcher tout rouge-(lit. to be all red angry), to blow one’s top

Green

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Se mettre au vert- (lit. to put oneself in the green), escape to the countryside

Avoir la main verte- (lit. to have the green hand), to have green fingers

Yellow

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Rire jaune- (lit. yellow laughter), forced laughter

Franchir la ligne jaune- (lit. to cross the yellow line), to cross the thin blue line

Jaune d’oeuf- (lit. the yellow of the egg), egg yolk

Blue

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Être fleur bleue- (lit. to be a blue flower), to be soppy/sentimental

Avoir un bleu- (lit. to have a blue),  to have a bruise

Grey

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Faire grise mine- (lit. to make a grey face), to pull a long face

Faire travailler sa matière grise- (lit. to put his/her grey matter to work), to put his/her thinking cap on

Black

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Être noir de monde- (lit. to be black with people), full of people

Broyer du noir- (lit. to crush some black), have the blues/be down in the dumps

 

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