Colors and Idioms in English and German

Colors are the same everywhere, right? Sort of. Although a lot of the language usage of colors are the same in German and English, many times they aren’t. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed.

Blue Eyes

Let’s say someone punched you in the eye. Hypothetical here, I don’t want to hurt anybody. What color would your eye-bruise be? If you were speaking German, it would be a blue eye. If you told someone in English that you got a blue eye, they might think that a bit strange. Of course it would be a black eye. If you got beaten up badly in English, that would be black and blue. In German, I guess that would just be “Auweh!” [Woe is me!].

In German, being (not getting) blue-eyed means you are naive and believe everything you are told.

How do you Feel, Blue?

How would you feel if you were blue? Well, in English you would feel sad in German you would be drunk. Not quite the same…

Sometimes if you don’t have enough context, the first time you hear an idiom you could misunderstand it. Once at work someone came in a bit late, he apologized and said he “had a crash”. I was very concerned and said that I hoped he hadn’t hurt himself. Of course, this made things worse. The poor fellow had to explain that he actually hadn’t “crashed” but that he had gotten drunk the night before. I suppose if he had said that he was “blue” the night before I still might have reacted incorrectly. He could have also said that he had a “male cat” which means have a hangover. Say what?

Hmm, there are a lot of idioms for being drunk. I suppose the lesson to be learnt here is don’t get drunk and try to explain it by using idioms. “Take the bulls by the horns” and say you were drunk, had a hangover and couldn’t get out of bed.

Of course, after we got straight what had happened, he promised “the blue from the heavens” that that would never happen again. No, no, in English it would be “promising the moon”.  And, as far as I know he never missed another day for “crashing”.

The Blue Hour

Once when we were on a ski-trip with friends they mentioned how beautiful the mountains looked during the “blue hour”. Wait, blue seems to be connected a lot with drinking, would that be the happy hour at a bar? No, don’t be silly. They were talking about twilight. And yes, the mountains are beautiful during the “blue hour”; they turn a musky blue-red.

Blue Wonders

The last blue I want to talk about are the German “blue wonders”. Those “blue wonders” are real eye-openers. They have nothing to do with Smurfs. The easiest ways to describe “blue wonders” is to think of all those people who sing on talent shows. Many really think they can sing but can’t. When they are told to their faces that they are talentless they experience a “blue wonder”.




Red idioms are pretty much the same in both languages. “Seeing red” is enraged. “Turning red” is be embarrassed. Threads that run through German and English stories are essentially the same. Only in German It’s always a red thread.

Yellow and Green

Being yellow in German has to do with envy. Being yellow in English means you are a coward. Not something you would want to mix up. English uses the color green to denote envy. Of course you wouldn’t just say you were “green”, which can also mean not feeling well. So, you might say “I was green with envy”. If you weren’t feeling well, “I was feeling green around the gills”.

Quite often green has some reference to young trees and the countryside. In German you might say that you drove into the green. That would mean taking a ride into the countryside and not driving onto a golf course. If you called someone green in German you would be commenting on them being young or inexperienced. In English it’s similar, you have your greenhorns.


By definition black is the absence of color, so technically black has no place in a post about colors. On the other hand, to create black pigments you use equal parts of the three primary colors (red, yellow, blue). So, being the artist that I am, yes, I will add black to my list of colors.

In German one talks about black-travelling and black-working along with the black market. In all three contexts black is not good. The black market, is the black market in both languages. A Black-traveller is someone who uses public transportation without paying for it. Black-workers are people who work without the knowledge of the government. They therefore neither pay taxes on the money nor receive any benefits from the employer (social security). A black-worker can be an immigrant or someone from that country.

If something is written in black and white, you’ve got it on paper in both languages. German has a very subtle difference; wou say black on white. Makes sense when you think about it; the black print on white paper.

To give someone “the Black Peter card” makes absolutely no sense in English. To understand it you have to know that Black Peter is a child’s card game. The German version of “Old maid”. The person left with either the Black Peter or the Old Maid loses. So, of course, you want to give that card to someone else if at all possible. I guess the closest idiom in English would be “pass the buck” and not give someone the “Old Maid”.

So, there are lots and lots of idioms that use colors. Did I hit a bulls-eye or in German, “hit in black”? Let me give you a green light to write comments about your experiences with colors and idioms!


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