Кучерява Я.О. The phenomenon of colour idioms in English

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Кучерява Яна Олександрівна – студентка Педагогічного інституту Київського університету імені Бориса Грінченка, напрям підготовки «Початкова освіта», кафедра іноземних мов і методик їх навчання Київського університету імені Бориса Грінченка

У статті розглядається проблема цілісних ідіом кольору в англійській мові. Автор надає визначення лексеми «ідіома» як специфічної фразеологічної одиниці, показує характерні значення ідіом кольору на основі прикладів, і пояснює шляхи їхнього проникнення в англійську мову. Що допомагає ефективно розвивати соціокультурну компетентність майбутніх учителів початкової школи.

Ключові слова: вивчення, майбутні учителі початкової школи, ідіоми, метафори, синоніми, антоніми, вливатися, включати, запозичувати.

В статье рассматривается проблема целостных идиом цвета в английском языке. Автор дает определение лексемы «идиома» как специфической фразеологической единицы, показывает характерные значения идиом цвета на основе примеров, а также объясняет пути их проникновения в английский язык, что помогает эффективно развивать социокультурную компетентность будущих учителей начальной школы.

Ключевые слова: изучение, будущие учителя начальной школы, идиомы, метафоры, синонимы, антонимы, вливаться, включать, заимствовать.

The article highlights the problem of colour cast-iron idioms in the English language. The author gives the definition of the lexis idiom as a specific phraseological unit, reveals colour idioms’ characteristic meanings on the bases of examples, and also explains ways of their penetrating into English that helps effectively develop future primary school teachers’ social and cultural competence.

Key words: learning, future primary school teachers, idioms, metaphors, synonyms, antonyms, infuse, involve, borrow.


Problem setting

Today’s realities, global interrelation of the nations and cultural varieties of our 21-st century planet, growing needs in communication and work among countries and people of different languages and cultural traditions demand training highly qualified primary school teachers who are expected to teach foreign languages, and are capable to take part in an international communication as well as international cooperation and formation of a new attitude to Ukraine in Europe and the whole world as well. And, nowadays, it goes without saying that the investigation and use of the linguistic phenomenon related to English colour idioms, in its turn, is considered to be one of the problems which is in the focus of the attention of linguists across the world.

Last scientific researches and publications analysis

The problem of idioms as specific phraseological units in the English language has been investigated by a number of home and foreign linguists: N. Rayevskaya, N. Amosova, E. Timoshenko, A. Alyokhina, V. Jukov, A. Kunin, Alan S. Kennedy, Sh. Balley, R. Moon, L. Smith and others who possess similar as well as different opinions on the terminology, essential features, meanings and ways of coming colour idioms into English vocabulary.

A major stimulus to intensive studies of phraseology in linguistics was N. Rayevskaya’s research carried out relating to cast-iron idioms or phraseological fusions in the English language.

Investigations of the phraseology in the English language were initiated by famous scientists A. Kunin, K. Barantsev, Dr. Elizabeth Bartsch-Parker, S. Burgen whose dictionaries of English idioms have much valuable information on their meaning and use in different nation’s communication.

A special point of interest is observed by the approach to the problem of phraseology suggested by a famous philologist N. Amosova who defines phraseological units as units of fixed context, that is, phrases with a specific and stable sequence of certain lexical components and peculiar semantic relations between them. In these terms, phraseological units are classified into phrasemes and idioms.

Formulation of the article’s purpose and setting tasks

Presently it is a recognized fact that the language is closely connected with the culture of the nation and can be understood through the culture in the broad meaning of the term. The colour idioms’ world of modern English is great and various, and there is no doubt that its each aspect deserves our due attention.

In this scientific research we try to provide an explanation of the English colour idioms’ phenomenon and to prove the importance of the studying this phenomenon in the process of learning a foreign language and effective future primary school teachers’ training who are expected to teach foreign languages and should possess perfectly the foreign language communicative competence. Moreover, their knowledge of a foreign language should approximate as much as possible to native speakers. That is why using of different colour idioms in the speech of the future primary school teachers plays a significant role. Realization of this goal requires the application of the studying English colour idioms in the process of learning a foreign language. The majority of colour idioms are tightly connected with the human and different fields of his activity that caused the emergence of a thematic group of idioms, which should be possessed by the future primary school teachers.

The statement of basic material of investigation

Everyone is interested in the world of idiomatic phrases, its colorful and fabulous variety, especially since it is extremely numerous in English. An idiom is a fixed phrase which is only meaningful as a whole. It means something different from the meanings of the separate words from which it is formed [2, 29]. For example: to come out of the blue means when something happens without a warning and by surprise [7, 657]. Considered in sense stock-phrases often differ so much from the natural meanings to be gathered from the component words that their meaning can never be derived as a whole from the conjoined meanings of its elements, e.g.: white knuckle (= an extremely exciting because of danger event or a journey).

All languages contain colour idioms. Native speakers of a language acquire these idioms from a very early stage in their linguistic development, and learn and remember them as a complete item, rather than a collection of separate words, e.g.: red herring (= a false trail). Non-native speakers find the idiomatic side of any language difficult to grasp. One should bear in mind the fact that idioms are generally impossible to translate between languages, although some families of languages use idioms based on identical ideas [3]. For example: in English the idiom white crow is parallel in its meaning with the Ukrainian one біла ворона [1, 643].

Colour idioms very often contain metaphors, but not always. They have connotative meanings which can be specific to particular area of life and can differ across cultures. In addition, connotative meanings of colours are incorporated into conventional linguistic expressions such as to feel blue (= feel sad), to be in the pink (= to be in the best condition), and to see red (= become angry very rapidly) in English, and in Persian white beard (= experienced and knowledgeable/wise man), white eye (= impudent; impertinent person), black fortune (= bad fortune) [6].

Colour idioms are complex and sometimes awkward sequence of words. They are not always used or recognized by the whole of the language community. Different subgroups of speakers employ colour idioms peculiar to themselves. Teenagers, occupational groups, leisure groups, gender groups, age groups all employ special colloquial colour idioms. E.g.: Teenager – Carolina, Colombia: Nowadays, to receive a physical letter is once in a blue moon (= extremely rarely). So, when the mailman knocked in my door it was as a bolt from the blue (= entirely unexpected).

Colour idioms across the cultures are so numerous that it would require much more space than we have at our disposal to give them all. Here are some of them: black and blue (= bruised); Admiral of the red (= red-faced drunkard); be green about the gills (= sick); every cloud has a silver lining (= an unexpected good side or good result of a bad or unfortunate happening); be born in (the) purple or be born to the purple (= born into a royal /noble/rich/wealthy family), etc.

The sources of English idioms around colours are various and of great concern of the scientists of the world. The linguists state that there are different ways colours have infused themselves into the English language. Naturally, this happens with other languages, too. But often there is a little tweak. For instance, in English one could get a black eye, but in French it would be a black butter eye. And in English one could get red with rage, but in Italian it would be green with rage.

Some of the idioms have had curious histories. By way of illustration: white elephant (= a useless knick-knack or an expensive, useless thing) is from Burma, whose kings were supposed to have been in the habit of punishing their courtiers by burdening them with one of the sacred and expensive animals [7, 1521].

Lots of more recent English idioms were borrowed from the United States, but these can hardly be classed as foreign idioms. We would like to mention some of them: until he’s blue in the face (=until he’s very angry); feeling blue (= to be depressed); out of the blue (= unexpectedly); once in a blue moon (= ever, sometime, some day) [1, 715]; blue blooded (= a nobleman or noblewoman by birth) [7, 128].

It comes quite natural that the main source of foreign idioms in English is the French language. A few typical illustrations are the following [J. Siefring]:

French English Meaning
passer une nuit blanche to spend a white night to have a sleepless night
blanc-bec white beak an inexperienced but pretentious person
une oie blanche a white goose a naive, silly girl
œil au beurre noir black butter eye bruised eye
chou vert et vert chou cabbage green and green cabbage six of one, a half-dozen of the other
faire quelqu’un marron to make someone brown to cheat on someone

Hundreds and hundreds of idioms involving colour were borrowed from languages across the globe. Below is a small sampling of them [6]:

26.03.15 Kucheryava.jpg

A number of proverbs and idiomatic phrases can be found not only in English but in Ukrainian, Russian, French, German and other European languages. Here are a few examples of them: in English – To be born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth (syn. To be born under a lucky star) means to be born into a very wealthy family [7, 1257], in Ukrainian – Народитися у «сорочці» [1, 81], and in Russian it sounds Родился в «рубашке» [4, 48].

Synonymous phenomenon in English idioms deserves our particular attention as well. The importance of investigating such synonyms in practical use is quite obvious. Here are a couple of examples given below: black magic (syn. black art) – magic believed to be done with the help of evil spirits and used for evil purposes [7, 120]; it is but a small flock that has not its own black sheep (syn. there is a black sheep in every flock (fold) where a black sheep stands for someone who is thought by other members of their group to be a failure or to have brought shame on the group [7, 121]; black swan (syn. a white crow) – something rare, anomaly, a strange phenomenon [1, 143]; be white about the gills (synonyms: be green about the gills; be yellow about the gills) – feel sick [6]; all cats are (alike)grey in the dark (synonyms: all cats are grey in the night; at night all cats are gray (German); when candles are out all cats are grey – it makes no difference, and further on [1, 22].

Care should be given to the antonymous phenomenon in English colour idioms. A few vivid examples to reveal it will be the following: black-letter day – a week day /antonym red letter day – a day that is memorable because of some important event [R. Edmondson]; black lie – deliberate lie /antonym white lie – innocent lie; black magic – magic with evil spirits, the devil / antonym white magic – magic by divine powers, etc [7, 1007)].

Conclusion and the results of the investigation

Everything mentioned above confirms that the studying of the colour idioms phenomenon in English in the process of learning a foreign language is extremely useful, as it provides an opportunity to get acquainted with the world of phrases and English-speaking communicators. But it requires intense mental work of students who are trained to become future primary school teachers that are expected to teach a foreign language and their active participation in both the process of learning and the process of teaching a foreign language in future. This process develops the students’ ability to learn, gaining information through a foreign language and processing this information to develop their personality and professionalism, and to develop their ability to be useful, helpful and active participants in an international communication, cooperation and formation of a new attitude to Ukraine in Europe and the whole world as well.

For further research on this issue we believe it appropriate to investigate and study the English colour idioms phenomenon in the context of teachers-innovators’ efforts, to follow recent developments in educational technologies and to implement modern instructional technologies.


  1. Англо-український фразеологічний словник / уклад. К.Т. Баранцев. – 3-ге вид., випр. – К.: Т-во «Знання», КOO, 2006. – 1056 с.
  2. Єфімов Л.П. Стилістика англійської мови і дискурсивний аналіз. Учбово-методичний посібник / Єфімов Л. П., Ясінецька О. А. – Вінниця : НОВА КНИГА, 2011. – 240 с.
  3. Кунин А.В. Курс фразеологии современного английского языка. Учеб. для ин-тов и фак. иностр. яз. 2-е изд., перераб. М.: Высш. шк., Дубна: Изд. центр Феникс , 1996. – 381 с.
  4. Кунин А.В. Англо-русский фразеологический словар / А.В Кунин. – 6-е изд., стереотип. – М.: Рус. яз. – Медиа, 2005. – 501, [11] c.
  5. Раевская Н.М. Курс лексикологии английского языка. – К.: Вища школа, 1971. – 336 с.
  6. Alan S. Kennedy’s Color/Language Project. COLOR IDIOMS IN DIFFERENT LANGUAGES http://www.starchamber.com/colors/color-idioms.html
  7. Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture : Third edition, updated reprint. – London: Pearson. Education Limited, 2008. – 1620 c.

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