Color Idioms

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #493

5. Rose-Colored Glasses

Rose is our next color. We use the words rose-colored and rosy to mean optimistic, as in the expressions looking through rose-colored glasses and things are looking rosy. (14) If someone looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, she is perhaps being overly optimistic and in denial. (15) The idea of an idyllic worldview being rosy dates from at least the 17th century, (15) but Merriam-Webster.com dates the idiom rose-colored glasses to 1926. (16) Theories about why it means optimistic abound, and we'll cover a couple. 

The first takes us to Victorian times and the thought that an artist could liven up a painting by adding extra roses to it. (15) That sounds reasonable, as does the second theory, which holds that early mapmakers paid such close attention to detail that they needed to keep their spectacles clean with rose petals. (15) 

An interesting factoid that came up during research is worth sharing, though it likely has nothing to do with the meaning of rose-colored and rosy: In the early 1900s, some farmers started to place rose-colored glasses on their chickens to reduce cannibalization. (17) The thinking was that the glasses would keep the chickens from recognizing blood on other chickens, which apparently triggers the attack instinct. I wonder if these glasses work or if their use was overly optimistic.

6. Green-Eyed Monster

Our sixth color is green and the idiom green with envy, which means jealous and dates from the mid-1800s. (18) Shakespeare used other green-related phrases, indicating that the association between green and jealousy has been around much longer than 160 years. For example, you'll find the phrase green-eyed monster in Othello, the green sickness in Anthony and Cleopatra, and green-eyed jealousy in Merchant of Venice. (19) In fact, it seems we can go back to the Ancient Greeks and their humors, to propose an origin for the phrase. (20) Remember the bile we mentioned when discussing the phrase white-livered? It seems that the Greeks thought if you were sick, the body produced too much bile, making you look green. We have probably all looked green at some point when feeling sick.  

7. Black Humor

Seventh and last in our list of colors is black. Black humor, or black comedy, is a style of satire that highlights very serious issues through comedy. The term comes from the French l'humour noire and was coined by Surrealist André Breton around 1940. (21) This phrase debuted in English around 1965, (22) and you'll also hear the terms dark humor and dark comedy to refer to this extreme kind of satire. Although the phrases are somewhat new to the language, the concept has been around for a few centuries. 

A famous example of black comedy is Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, published in 1729. (23) This short work “modestly” suggests how the British should eat Irish babies. Of course Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, was not serious; his outlandish—even funny—statements brought attention to the problem of Irish poverty. Here's a sample: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.” (23) 

It is easy to see why the color black is used in this idiom, because of the horror involved—both the fiction (eating babies) and the reality (starvation). 

Well, that's all for now. We hope that our discussion of black humor at the end didn't turn you a little green.

That segment was written by Bonnie Mills, who is the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, and blogs at SentenceSleuth.blogspot.com.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.