Color outside the lines with these colorful idioms

2 min read

Looking to add a little color to your next conversation? How about literally? Many hues of the rainbow have worked their way into common idioms and sayings. Read on to discover the veritable ROY G BIV of fun ways to paint with all the colors of the English language.

Caught red-handed

Consider this expression being caught with your hand in the proverbial cookie jar. The earliest mentions date back to 1432, and likely referred to people with blood on their hands from murder or poaching. So you know … just a tiny bit more gruesome than nabbing an extra cookie before dinnertime.

Green with envy

William Shakespeare is somewhat responsible for this saying. The phrase, referring to being positively overcome with jealousy, stems from a line in “Othello.” In the tragedy, envy is notably the main characters’ undoing. As Iago sagely warns: “Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

Out of the blue

If something happens unexpectedly or suddenly, you may exclaim it happened out of the blue. This is actually a shorter form of the expression “a bolt out of the blue,” which has the same meaning. It’s derived from the idea of a bolt of lightning appearing on an otherwise clear blue day — both unexpected and sudden.

Born in (or to) the purple

Purple is a color often associated with royalty, so to be born into it means you are a royal by blood. It’s not an expression excessively used by commoners, other than to say, “What an adorable baby born to the purple!”

Purple prose

Literary critics will often slap books with a purple prose label when they’re laden with overly flowery or ornamental descriptive writing. The historical definition is far less biting. It comes from the Roman “pannus purpureus,” meaning purple patch, which was used to describe writing that was notably witty or elaborate in an otherwise perfunctory document.

Pot calling the kettle black

This cheeky expression refers to criticizing someone or something for a trait you have in common, as in, “She said I’m two-faced? Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.” The origin story is a little fuzzy, but seems to stem from the 1600s when both pots and kettles would have been made from black cast iron.

White lie

White lies are mistruths and fibs that aren’t a particularly big deal, at least on the surface. For example, “I thought her new haircut was terrible, but I knew to tell her a white lie and say I loved it.” While an early citation of the phrase exists all the way in the 1300s, the more common origin points to the 1740s, when the color white was perceived as pure and good — a lie out of kindness.

Shades of gray

You may associate this expression with a certain raunchy book series, but it comes as a sort of a counterpoint to the expression “in black and white,” where judgments are crystal clear. Shades of gray, in contrast, implies a murky situation or state of ambiguous uncertainty. The expression “gray area” means the exact same thing.

Photo credit: Paweł Czerwiński/ Unsplash

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