The connotations of colour terms: colour based X-phemisms
Keith Allan, Linguistics Program, Monash University
This paper investigates the connotations of colour terms with particular attention to figurative uses of black, white, grey, brown, yellow, red, green, blue and a few miscellaneous colours. The connotations are judged on the basis of whether the phrases in which the colour terms occur are typically orthophemistic, euphemistic, or dysphemistic. All the colours surveyed have some, often many, orthophemistic connotations; euphemistic connotations of colours are rare; but dysphemism is common. Black is used orthophemistically but not euphemistically; it more often has dysphemistic connotations than other colours. It is often connected to darkness (the night), death, decay, and evil deeds. Black has often been used dysphemistically of human skin colour, though it can be orthophemistic. White is in contrast to black and, as such, linked to light and purity; it mostly has positive connotations. Dysphemistic uses depict cowardice and fear; white is rarely used in euphemism. Located on the achromatic scale between black and white, grey is, of course, used for indeterminability and dullness. It gives rise to few figures. The faecal associations of brown lead to several dysphemisms; it is found in no euphemisms and few orthophemisms in figurative speech. In figurative expressions, yellow is dysphemistically used of cowards and cheap paper, and sometimes of Asiatic people. Most figurative expressions, both positive and negative, link red with blood – life-blood, the blood of the slain, or menstrual blood. The colour green is linked to living vegetation; negative connotations arise when it is the colour of illness or jealousy. The negative aspects of figurative uses of blue arise from fear, fighting, despondency, and tabooed language and behaviour. It is arguable that the use of blue to speak about these topics is euphemistic and that uses of blue are rarely dysphemistic. Colour terms such as gold, silver, and platinum derive from the names for valuable metals from which they derive their mostly positive connotations. All figurative uses of colour terms surveyed are, perhaps predictably, based upon the visual attributes of the denotatum. Although individuals may experience synesthesia when encountering colour terms, the language resources demonstrate none. My classification of the connotations of English colour terms reveals networks of associations, but no surprises.
colour terms, connotation, dysphemism, euphemism, figurative language, metaphor, metonymy, orthophemism, X-phemism
This paper1 investigates the connotations of colour terms with particular attention to figurative uses. Colour based metaphors (and metonyms) are a subclass of appearance based metaphors (metonyms). Sighted people have direct sensory perception of the light waves that constitute colour; those who are blind from birth are deprived of this perception but they do know, as sighted people also know, that colours are associated with (and, as cognitive realities,
1. I am very grateful to my colleague Kate Burridge for suggestions that improved this paper; but Kate is no way to blame for its shortcomings
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derive from) certain perceivable objects (Davidoff 1997; Allan 2001: 306). Given that connotations are pragmatic effects that arise from encyclopaedic knowledge about denotata (Allan 2007)2, it has to be colour-bearing objects that give rise to the connotations of colour terms.
I classify the connotations of black, white, grey, brown, yellow, red, green, blue in terms of ‘X-phemisms’ a term used in Allan and Burridge 2006 for the union set of orthophemisms (straight-talking), dysphemisms (offensive language), and euphemisms (sweet-talking). Orthophemisms and euphemisms are words or phrases used as an alternative to a dispreferred expression. They avoid possible loss of face by the speaker and also the hearer or some third party. An orthophemism is typically more formal and more direct (or literal) than the corresponding euphemism. A euphemism is a word or phrase used as an alternative to a dispreferred expression. It avoids possible loss of face: either the speaker’s own positive face or, through giving offence, the negative face of the hearer or some third party. A euphemism is typically more colloquial and figurative (or indirect) than the corresponding orthophemism. A dysphemism is a word or phrase with connotations that are offensive either about the denotatum and/or to people addressed or overhearing the utterance. As examples of these different X-phemisms compare orthophemism faeces, euphemism poo, dysphemism shit. Because these differences vary according to context of use, Allan and Burridge 2006 invoked the ‘middle-class politeness criterion’ as a default: In order to be polite to a casual acquaintance of the opposite sex in a formal situation in a middle class environment, one would normally be expected to use the euphemism or orthophemism rather than the dispreferred counterpart. The dispreferred counterpart would be a dysphemism. It is this criterion which operates on the judgments made in this paper.
The discussion is based almost entirely on English with occasional but unsystematic comments on colour-based metaphors in other languages. All the colours surveyed have some, often many, orthophemistic connotations; euphemistic connotations of colours are rare; but dysphemism is common.
Except for the phrases in the black “solvent, in profit”, black tie event “formal social gathering”, and (if it is not archaic) black-coat for a “clergyman”, the colour black is regarded unfavourably. As a colour it is characterized by the absence of light and can therefore denote enveloping darkness, the sombre, the dismal, the sad, and the gloomy. A black day may give rise to the black dog, in other words, a black mood. These are links to the dark clouds of sorrow, melancholy or mourning; the kind of things that turn up in a film noir – a French phrase for which there is no standard translation in English. On a lighter note there is black humour, which jokes about adversity.
Black is associated in western communities with funereal clothes and other matters pertaining to death. The phrase Black Death refers to the half dozen outbreaks of bubonic and pneumonic plague that ravaged Europe from 1347 until 1400 causing the premature deaths of an estimated 25 million people. The population in England in 1400 was perhaps half what it had been 100 years earlier and the population of Western Europe did not again reach its pre-1347 level until the beginning of the 16th century. Doubtless there were unfortunate medievals accused of causing the Black Death by employing black magic or other black arts such as involvement in a black mass.
2. The connotations of a language expression are pragmatic effects that arise from encyclopaedic knowledge about its denotation (or reference) and also from experiences, beliefs, and prejudices about the contexts in which the expression is typically used.
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There is the black look of a face clouded with anger, frowning, threatening, boding ill (perhaps capable of blackmail) and other baneful, disastrous, or sinister matters. The Black September movement was a Palestinian Arab paramilitary group named for the month in 1970 when Jordanian forces attacked Palestinian commandos. Another occasional killer is the black widow spider, Latrodectes mactans. A blackguard is a black hearted person, someone who might blacken your name or give you a black eye; a foul, iniquitous, atrocious, wicked person who has dark, malignant or deadly purposes; doubtless the black sheep of the family; the sort of person involved with black money made on the black-market; a person who may appear on a black list or be black balled as a person in disgrace, a black leg ostracised and excluded, under suspicion, censure, or punishment.
Black is the colour associated with soiled, dirty, foul things deeply stained with dirt; it is the colour of rotting organic matter. The Hua, a people from the Eastern Highlands District of Papua New Guinea, associate ‘black with the dark rotting substances alleged to be crucial in female fertility’ (Meigs 1978: 317 n.8). From the womb, as from black compost or from the charred ashes of burned forests and grasslands, springs new life. But this does not rehabilitate black from a generally dysphemistic set of connotations that almost certainly strengthen negative attitudes to dark-skinned peoples, attitudes reinforced by the fact that field workers whose skin is darkened by the sun have been almost universally looked down upon by the lighter skinned elites who, until the second half of the 20th century, avoided prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Among Anglos, white is associated with purity and light, freedom from malignity or evil intent and thus with the beneficent, the innocent, the harmless. This is strongly motivated by its contrast with black; compare the good White Knight (in shining armour) versus the Black Knight and the fact that villains traditionally wear black in Hollywood films. White magic is good, black magic is bad. White collar workers are socially superior to blue collar workers. A white lie is an acceptable lie. The modern bride wears white as a symbol of chastity and purity (even if she is no longer a virgin).
Anglos are white skinned and, as already remarked, until the 20th century, sunburned whites were looked down upon as toilers in the open air and definitely inferior to the refined and pale gentry. To be lily-white is complimentary:
[passions fixed on] cherry cheeks, small lily-white hands, sloe-black eyes, flowing locks, downy chins, dapper shades, nay, sometimes on charms more worthless than these. (Fielding 1749 I. xi).
Thus to be white was a compliment and the attribution of darker hues was dysphemistic. In an arrogant expression of racism, to be a white man was to be honourable and square-dealing – especially in the United States of America.
1890 Century Mag. Feb. 523/2 There ain’t a whiter man than Laramie Jack from the Wind River Mountains down to Santa Fe. 1913 E. Wharton Cust[om of the] Country ix, Well—this is white of you. Ibid. xviii, I meant to act white by you. (OED [Oxford English Dictionary 1989])
Along with this went the white man’s burden of colonial responsibility towards non-whites and the white Australia policy that once explicitly legislated to keep a majority of the Australian population white through selective immigration; it also favoured white labour through pay discrimination and import controls. Such attitudes are dysphemistic to non-whites. The default slave is, of course, black, but white slaves are sold into the sex trade.
Describing some white person’s complexion as white as sheet is negative, though perhaps not dysphemistic. It describes blood being drawn from the face through illness, fear or shock. To accuse someone of being lily-livered is to accuse them of cowardice:
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Go pricke thy face, and over-red thy feare,
Thou Lilly-liver’d Boy. (Shakespeare Macbeth V.iii.15).
A coward was sent a white feather.
Whiteness was also a sign of cleanliness, which is one reason for whitewashing one’s house. To figuratively whitewash is a cover-up to make the bad seem good.
One of the rare uses of white in a dysphemism is white elephant, referring to an expensive but useless object. The expression seems to have come from Thailand or Burma where, because a white elephant heralded the birth of the Buddha, white elephants are almost sacred and so they do no work yet are expensive to keep. (Their skin colour is, in fact, rather like that of a ‘white’ human being with freckles.)
Summing up, in contrast to black, white is rarely used dysphemistically.
Grey (U.S. gray) is sometimes complimentary in grey-beard, but not necessarily. Australian grey nomads are retirees who travel around the country; the phrase is orthophemistic. So too, is grey power referring to a lobby groups for ‘senior’ citizens in Australia and New Zealand and the phrase recognizes potentially powerful political forces in the U.S. and Europe as populations age.
Otherwise, grey dysphemistically describes dull weather, dismal or gloomy states of affairs, and dull people.
1969 [International Times] 4–17 July 3/3 The whole scene is under the thumbs of the greys. Pretty well everywhere today the dead men, the square men and the greys are running things, calling the tune. (OED)
Among African Americans gray is a dysphemism for whites.
Arbitrage (the practice of taking advantage of a price differential between two or more markets) is referred to as the grey market; if this is a dysphemism, so too is the term arbitrage itself, which I don’t believe. The link may be through the mildly negative notion of a grey area “a murky area in which no clear resolution seems possible”, i.e. indeterminable, when determinability is preferred.
Despite positive attitudes to certain brown coloured substances such as brown bread, brown rice and brown ale – all orthophemisms, the colour brown is often associated with dysphemism and euphemistic dysphemism. The faeces inspired figures are obvious enough in expressions like You’re full of shit, that’s why your eyes are brown; in the brown stuff; browned off and the associated brown-nosing or brown-tonguing for a smarmy, sycophantic arselicker. There is also the black humour of I’m off to choke a darkie “have a shit”, which has violent racist undertones, if even if they are not serious.
Faecal associations are not the only downside of brown; there is, too, the fact that dying vegetation goes brown. Except for the 20th century, sunburned whites as brown as a berry were despised because, as I’ve said already, only socially inferior labourers toiled in the open air and got brown and weather beaten. Today, concern about skin cancer is once again turning exposure to the sun into mildly tabooed behaviour.
Summing up, the colour brown is dysphemistic when linked to faeces.
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Yellow is nearly always orthophemistic but occasionally dysphemistic. Like green, it was applied to people who are fearful or jealous, particularly in the phrase wear yellow hose that died out in the 19th century. Still very actively dysphemistic and insulting is to call someone yellow or yellow-bellied “cowardly and craven”. This originated in the U.S. in the 19th century and perhaps derived from the link between fear and the colour yellow.
A yellow back is a “dime novel” and the yellow press is the U.S. term for what is elsewhere referred to as the tabloid press – perhaps because the printing is on cheap barely bleached paper that quickly yellows with age.
Like white, black and brown, yellow is used for skin colour. The phrase yellow peril is a racist dysphemism referring to a supposed danger that the Asiatic peoples will overwhelm whites. Among African Americans a yellow (yaller) is a light brown person and the sobriquet is polite. The attitude to different skin tones is ironically revealed in the ‘Black Gal Blues’ from the Mississippi delta (the lyricist and singers are all African Americans).
Now a yellow girl rides in an automobile;
A brown skinned girl rides the same.
What does a black girl do? [Another voice]
A black girl comes in an old hay wagon;
She’s getting by just the same.
I’ll be there in the morning if I live.
I’ll be there in the morning if I don’t get killed.
If I never no more see you again, be sure to remember me.
Yellow girl drinks good ol’ whiskey;
A brown skinned girl drinks the same.
What does a black girl do? [Another voice]
Well, a black girl drinks shoe polish;
She’s getting drunk just the same.
I’ll be there in the morning if I live.
I’ll be there in the morning if I don’t get killed.
If I never no more see you again, be sure to remember me.
A yellow girl will fight you; she will pop you with a stick;
A brown skinned girl fights the same.
And what does a black girl do? [Another voice]
Well, a black girl get a rusty razor while you’re over town;
You know, I’ve gone on raising hell just the same.
Now a yellow girl will kiss you, she will kiss you awful sweet;
A brown skinned girl kiss the same.
What does a black girl do? [Another voice]
A black girl’s preparing you, she’ll smack you on the lips.
Oh, loving you just the same.
(The Delta Boys. Lyrics by Mary Johnson c. 1930. Mississippi Blues Blues Collection CD. ORO124. 1991)
Note the scale that ranks a yellow girl above a brown-skinned girl who in turn ranks higher than a black girl.
The colour red, being the colour of blood and fire, is ripe for metaphorically driven X-phemisms. For both physiological and psychological reasons it is the most salient colour for human beings, cf. Ratcliffe 1976: 323; MacLaury 1997: 252; Miller 1997: 159. Red has come to be used by traffic control systems in stop signs and traffic lights. Presumably, red for danger is inspired by red being the colour of blood. The convention has spread to a wide variety of prohibition signs.
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Red is a lucky colour for Chinese cultures; less so for English speakers, although in more religious times the calendars marked holy days and holidays in red, hence red letter days were a good days – the colour probably chosen because of its salience. The red carpet treatment is flattering because the red carpet is rolled out over the ground for VIPs to walk on as they enter a vehicle or a building; again, the colour probably chosen because of its salience. Red lips are favoured by women of many races; but red cheeks only among north Europeans as a sign of health against the pallor of illness. Red cheeks are also an effect of the cold when blood rushes in to keep the face warm. A red bloodied male is ‘real’ man (whatever that is). Something that is red-hot is normally valued highly, though it is the adjective hot that dominates in the dysphemistic use of red-hot as a description of stolen goods actively sought by the law. The red of the setting sun is good: Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight because it is supposed to indicate fine weather. But red sky in the morning
ever yet betokend
Wrack to the sea man, tempest to the field,
Sorrow to the shepherds, woe unto the birds,
Gusts and foul flaws to herdsmen and to herds. (Shakespeare Venus and Adonis ll. 453–6)
Sometimes red objects are perceived to have special protective or curative powers. Bloodstone is worn as an amulet because the red spots symbolize Christ’s crucifixion. Coral, because of its red colour, has traditionally been used in babies’ teething rings. In the north of England, one custom has been to apply red flannel to bronchial chests and joints which are sore and inflamed (the red colour is probably associated with the warmth of a fire). According to Meigs 1978: 309f, the Hua of Papua New Guinea attribute red pandanus oil and those foods which release a reddish colour when cooked with exceptional curative powers. All these uses of red are primarily orthophemistic.
Yet red has more dysphemistic than euphemistic associations for English. To be in the red is “to show a deficit”; red ink may have been used as an instance of red for danger. Red tape hampers efficient action; the figure derives from the use of red tape to tie bundles of legal and government documents, but there is no known reason for the tape to have been red rather than any other colour. A red herring is a “misleading distraction”; the expression derives from the early practice of drawing a smelly dried red herring (kipper) across the path of a hunted animal to sharpen up the skill of the hounds. To some people a red herring would be like a red rag to a bull “incitement, or provocation”. People are described as blushing or turning red (even beetroot) with embarrassment or anger – in which case they see red – as blood rushes to the face. A red-neck is a (white) ill-educated bigot – prejudiciously, the red neck comes from labouring in the open. To have blood on your hands is an indictment of murder and doubtless gives rise to the phrase caught red-handed; but, in truth, this phrase is used for anyone caught acting in a criminal manner or just doing something disapproved of. The red flag of revolutionary France is said to have been dipped in aristocrats’ blood; whether or not this is true, the red flag of revolution was flown often in the 19th and 20th centuries, not least by the Bolshevik revolution and Red China.3 The communist red flag gave rise to western paranoia about reds under the beds through much of the 20th century. I don’t know when brothels began using red lights as beacons for their trade, but since some time in the late 19th century they are located in red light districts (whether or not red lights are actually to be seen). The red link is through the phrase scarlet woman, meaning “whore” which arose from St John’s vision in Revelation 17:
3. In this light it is interesting the Ukrainian Orange Revolution (Помаранчева революція), which lasted a couple months from November 2004, was marked by the colour orange. This was in part to contrast it with the red of the Soviet Revolution, because orange was the campaign colour of the Our Ukraine party of Viktor Yushchenko (and Yulia Tymoshenko) against the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych (who campaigned using the colour blue).
Keith Allan The connotations of colour terms 7/13
1: And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: 2: With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication. 3: So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. 4: And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: 5: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. 6: And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.
Whether or not this Whore of Babylon was a metaphor for Rome, by about 1600 scarlet woman4 was being used more generally for a woman with loose morals.
Euphemisms, or perhaps euphemistic dysphemisms, for menstruation use figures such as the Red Sea’s in, it’s a red letter day, riding the red rag, flying the red flag5, surfing the red wave, red sails in the sunset, snatch box decorated with red roses. More poetic and figurative is her cherry is in sherry. Also poetic, I think, is that a red rose on the prostitute’s dress once indicated that the shop was closed to business. Because of the British military’s pre-20th century predilection for red coats, the cavalry’s here and entertaining the general (along with French j’ai mon anglais) refer to having a period. The army’s association with bloody deeds is not irrelevant here. In the late 1980s this kind of metaphor turned up in a television advertisement for Fleur tampons shown in Melbourne, Australia: two women’s voices discuss the discovery of the neat little flower decorated box among the contents of a handbag; one identifies it as Fleur tampons and describes the superiority of these over other tampons; then, as the shot changes to an elderly man in hunting red and riding hat carrying a tray of drinks, the second voice says ‘Oh good, the cavalry’s arrived.’ Blood gets direct mention in bloody Mary, and indirect implication in the gal’s at the stockyards and its effects in have the painters in.
In medieval Europe, blood, and in particular menstrual blood, was used to treat ailments of all kinds, especially serious diseases like leprosy; this is despite the reputation of menstrual fluid as a dangerous purveyor of such diseases. Presumably it is homeopathic medicine, like “the hair of the dog” (alcohol as the remedy for a hangover) cf. Durkheim 1963: 94. As we saw earlier, other red objects are also perceived to have special protective or curative powers.
So, in sum, the connotations of red reflect both positive and negative aspects of our life-blood.
Green, the complement of red, is said to be a restful colour. Being the dominant colour of living leaves (hence a successful gardener has green fingers) it is associated with political movements which focus on the preservation of the natural environment and seems to have few negative connotations. In olden days, a wanton girl who rolled on the grass with a man had her clothing stained green, so the green gown was euphemism for the loss of virginity as well as for a romp in the hay:
4. In Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene of 1590 a ‘wicked woman’ is described as a ‘scarlot whore’ (I.viii.28-29).
5. Compare Russian krasnyi flag and pervomaiskie prazdniki “May Day celebration” because in Soviet times people marched with red flags (I owe this snippet to Ludmilla A’Beckett, p.c.).
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At length he was so bold as to giue her a greene gowne when I feare me she lost the flower of her chastity. (1602, OED).
White people are sometimes said to turn green through biliousness, fear, anger or with jealous envy. Only the reference to jealous envy is normally dysphemistic. The figure of green-eyed jealousy (perhaps deriving from biliousness, fear, or anger) seems to originate with Shakespeare:
Shuddring feare, and greene-eyed jelousie (Merchant of Venice III.ii.110)
Oh, beware my Lord, of jelousie,
It is the greene-ey’d Monster. (Othello III.iii.166).
Unripe fruit such as apples, pears and peaches is typically green and unpalatable; these characteristics have been transferred and extended in that people and other things are dysphemistically said to be green if they are immature, inexperienced, undeveloped, unripe, raw, and therefore greenhorns.
So, metaphorical uses of green are predominantly dysphemistic.
The colour blue is mostly used orthophemistically, though there are a few figurative uses that verge on euphemism such as blue blooded for aristocratic families. According to the OED it derives from the use by 16th century Spaniards of sangre azul which proved that the family had not been ‘contaminated’ by Moorish or Semitic blood. ‘The expression probably originated in the blueness of the veins of people of fair complexion as compared with those of dark skin’ (OED).
By tradition an Anglo bride wears Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue to link her symbolically with her past and future, her family and friends, while the wearing of blue signifies virtuousness. The custom is inspired by the blue overgarment worn by the Madonna in most paintings of her. Before the late 19th century, blue was a popular colour for wedding gowns, and girls were often dressed in blue. Pink for girls and blue for boys is a custom that developed after the 1930s; in earlier times, the colour for boys was hunting pink. It is possible that the swap came about because the blue uniforms of the navy, air force and police put a macho gloss on blue while the Nazi marking of homosexuals with pink triangles made that colour seem effeminate. (This leaves unexplained the reason for the Nazi choice of pink.) It is possible that the adoption of blue as the colour of various political parties in Britain from the 17th century was influenced by the colour of the Madonna’s garb. It has led to the attribute true blue meaning “good, solid, dependable person; a staunch believer”. Allied to such uses is blue ribbon “excellent” and the related blue riband “best in class (of sporting endeavour)”. Nationalism in both Britain and Australia is sometimes described as being true blue.
Named for the colour of their uniforms, the good, solid, and dependable boys in blue (the dysphemistic bluebottles) and the thin blue line refer to the police. On the other hand, blue-collar workers, also named metonymically for the colour of their uniform, refers orthophemistically to manual or industrial workers.
The blue rinse set is descriptive of conservative middle-class women in late middle-age who during the 20th century stereotypically had their hair died a shade of blue. To describe a woman as a bluestocking was and is a dysphemistic denigration of her being more interested in learning and literature than household duties, playing cards or dancing. The term arose in the mid-18th century, and
probably originated when one of the ladies, Mrs. Vesey, invited the learned Benjamin Stillingfleet to one of her parties; he declined because he lacked appropriate dress, whereupon she told him to come “in his
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blue stockings” – the ordinary worsted stockings he was wearing at the time. He did so, and Bluestocking (or Bas Bleu) society became a nickname for the group. This anecdote was later recounted by Madame d’Arblay (the diarist and novelist better known as Fanny Burney), one of the most famous of the Bluestockings. (Encyclopedia Britannica 2001 De Luxe Edition CD)
Out of the blue “a complete surprise” has negative connotations but is not dysphemistic. Of similar status is (shouting till one is) blue in the face, a figure that derives from someone straining with effort so that their (blue) veins stand out. Much closer to dysphemism is yell blue murder “yell oneself blue in the face”, throw a blue fit. The Australasian slang noun blue “a fight or brawl; a mistake or blunder” possibly derives from the foregoing sense, perhaps partly motivated by the colour of the bruising that results from brawling, with links to being blue with fear (to be discussed shortly) and even the arrival of the boys in blue. The sources for this Australasian use may, oddly enough, include input from bloody and what Allan and Burridge 1991 called the ‘bl- phonestheme’6 a set of fairly mild maledictions that are marked by the onset phonestheme bl–. In Australasia a red-haired person is often nicknamed Blue, so there is a tradition of contrarily referring to that which is red as blue. The bl– phonestheme turns up in bloody, bleeding, blessed, blamed, blinking, blinding, blasted, blighter, blankety(-blank), Blimey!, Blast!, Blow! What the blazes!? and the verb bleep (out indelicate utterances). These include blood-linked maledictions and some with profane or blasphemous implications invoking the fires of hell or the wrath of the Old Testament God. Australasian blue “a fight or brawl; a mistake or blunder” seems to fit in with these, since a blue will doubtless give rise to swearing and profanity if not bruising and intercession by the boys in blue.
From Elizabethan times people were described as blue with fear. Since the 19th century, a blue funk meaning “extreme nervousness, tremulous dread” seems to have replaced blue fear. There was also possession by the blue devils “despondency, depression of spirits”; this phrase was euphemistically end-clipped to the blues, which in turn came to describe a kind of music.
As a musical genre, the blues often had despondent lyrics; e.g. Blind Blake’s Lonesome Christmas Blues.
This is December, the last month of year, [repeat]
Twenty-fourth day and Christmas is almost here.
Last Christmas mornin’ I was standing in the jailhouse cell, [repeat]
And this Christmas I’m sick and can’t get well.
I’m lying in my bed watching the snow flakes fall, [repeat]
Worried in mind ’cause I ain’t got no baby at all.
(Recorded September 1929, Paramount 12869. Cf. Oliver 1970: 33)
However, Billie Holiday is on record referring to ‘happy blues’ which suggests that the blues have a connection with blue meaning “indecent, obscene, profane” as in turn the air blue “curse and swear” and blue film / movie “pornographic movie”. This sense may be derive from the fact that hellish brimstone (sulphur) burns with a blue flame (Wentworth and Flexner 1967). Fire and brimstone was a euphemism for “hell” (e.g. in Shakespeare Twelfth Night II.v.56). To get back to the music, many blues issued on record are strongly suggestive if not obscene. For instance Kokomo Arnold’s Sissy Man Blues includes the lines:
Hollerin’ church bells on one Sunday mornin’, [repeat]
Some dirty deacon7 come and stole my gal and gone.
6. A phonestheme is a cluster of sounds, located at either the onset of a word or its rhyme, which symbolize a certain meaning; they are typically incomplete syllables, and their meaning is much more difficult to pin down than that of morphemes; furthermore, exactly the same cluster of sounds that constitute the phonestheme will appear in many vocabulary items which have no trace of the meaning associated with the phonestheme. See Allan 2001.
7. There were many blues in which preachers and deacons were accused of larceny and sexual misconduct. Hi-Henry Brown’s Preacher Blues (recorded March 1932 on Vocalion 1728, cf. Oliver 1970: 50) is one.
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I woke up this mornin’ with my pork-grinder in my hand, [repeat]
If you can’t send me no woman, please send me a sissy man.
And Walter Davis’s I Think You Need a Shot includes the following lines, in which the doctor’s needle has replaced the tailor’s needle of Olde England:
You got bad blood baby and I think you need a shot, [repeat]
Now turn over mama, let me see what else you got.
I doctors on women, I don’t fool around with men, [repeat]
All right take it easy now mama while I stick my needle in.
Oh your ways is lovin’ and your skin is nice and soft, [repeat]
If you keep on rasslin’ you gonna make me break my needle off.
Lord my needle’s in you baby and you seem to feel it all right, [repeat]
And when your medicine comes down I want you to hug me tight.
Yeah your medicine come now baby, put your leg upside the wall, [repeat]
I don’t want you to waste none of it, I want you to have it all.
Recordings that never got issued were far more explicit, and presumably reflect what was often sung in live performance. The taboo terms and topics that appear in the lyrics led to them being censored from public release. Here is part of Jelly Roll Morton’s Winin’ Boy Blues on a Library of Congress recording. (Recall that Morton began his musical career as the resident pianist in a brothel.)
I had that bitch, had her on the stump, [three times]
I fucked her till her pussy stunk,
I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name.
Nickel’s worth of beefsteak, and a dime’s worth of lard, [three times]
Gonna salivate your pussy till my penis gets hard,
I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name.
Every time the changin’ of the moon, [three times]
The blood comes rushin’ from the bitch’s womb,
I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my fuckin’ name. (See Oliver 1970: 170)
And the first stanza of Lucille Bogan’s Shave ’Em Dry8 goes like this:
I got nipples on my titties big as the end of my thumb,
I got somethin’ ’tween my legs’ll make a dead man come,
Oooh daddy – baby, won’t you shave ’em dry, oooh!
Won’t you grind me baby, grind me till I cry.
The rest of it continues in the same vein. I rest my case for the blueness of the blues. (If you find this argument far-fetched, remember that jazz and rock and roll were terms for copulation before ever they named kinds of music.)
If you want to hear a preacher curse,
Bake bread sweet mama, and save him the crust.
Oooh, if you want to hear a preacher curse,
Says, bake bread sweet mama, ooh, and save him the crust.
Preacher in the pulpit, Bible in his hand,
Sister in the corner cryin’, ‘There’s my man!’
Preacher come to your house yesterday to rest his hat,
Next day he want to know, ‘Sister, where your husband at?’
Come in here and shut my door
Want you to preach a text for me, preach like you did before,
Come in here and please shut my door,
Want you to preach a text for me, preach just like you did before.
8. Lucille Bogan, a 1935 test pressing, CBS (M) 63288. The rest of words are transcribed in Oliver 1970: 231f. Shave ’em dry means something like “groin grinding” and refers to friction between the montes pubes of a copulating couple.
Keith Allan The connotations of colour terms 11/13
Gold is a valuable aesthetically attractive metal. The term gold is much used in positive evaluations like golden age and compliments such as a golden boy, she’s good as gold, she’s worth her weight in gold, she has a heart of gold. Monetary value is focused upon in golden handshake. Perhaps the only golden dysphemism is where a woman is described as a gold digger when she is criticized for attaching herself to a man merely for the financial benefits (the male counterpart, gigolo is not so dysphemistic as toy boy but neither is it as negative as gold digger). Gilding applies gold, but to gild the lily is a mild dysphemism, an accusation of adding adornment where none is needed. It is based on a line from Shakespeare’s King John (1594–96):
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, To throw a perfume on the violet, To smooth the ice, or add another hue Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, Is wasteful and ridiculous excess. (Shakespeare King John IV.ii.11–16)
Although all that glisters is not gold (Shakespeare Merchant of Venice II.vii.65), to have a glittering career before one almost certainly gets its laudatory accolade from the fact that gold and other precious metals and stones typically glitter.
The heavy white metal platinum is rarer than gold and go platinum is to sell a million pop records and be awarded a platinum disc by the grateful record company. A platinum blond (woman with platinum coloured hair) is barely metaphorical and it is more dysphemistic than describing a woman as golden haired – perhaps because golden hair is more likely to be a natural colour than platinum hair is.
To be silver haired is usually a function of aging and the phrase is euphemistic by comparison with going grey which can be dysphemistic. A person has a silver tongue when they are persuasive; the attribution is mildly dysphemistic, as is silvertail. A silvery voice, however, is a tinkly sort of voice and orthophemistic.
Lead is dark coloured and very heavy. With the exception of put lead in your pencil (which is not a colour metaphor), to describe anything as leaden is dysphemistic: leaden skies indicate bad weather, a leaden expression is a dour facial expression, leaden feet are tired and weary feet.
The X-phemistic value of metallic colours derives from their characteristics as metals rather than from their typical hues.
Black is used orthophemistically but not euphemistically; it has dysphemistic connotations more often than other colours do. It is often connected to darkness (the night), death, decay, and evil deeds. Black has often been used dysphemistically of human skin colour, though it can be orthophemistic. White is in contrast to black and, as such, linked to light and purity; it mostly has positive connotations, though it is rarely used euphemistically. Dysphemistic uses depict cowardice and fear. Located on the achromatic scale between black and white, grey is, of course, used for indeterminability and dullness. It gives rise to few figures. The faecal associations of brown lead to several dysphemisms; brown is found in no euphemisms and few orthophemisms in figurative speech. In figurative expressions, yellow is dysphemistically used of cowards and cheap paper, and sometimes of East Asiatic people; but it is orthophemistic and positively used of light-coloured African Americans. The occurrence of red in both positive and negative figurative expressions, links it with blood – life-blood, the
Keith Allan The connotations of colour terms 12/13
blood of the slain, or menstrual blood. The colour green is linked to living vegetation; negative connotations arise when it is the colour of illness or jealousy (perhaps seen as illness). As the colour of the Madonna’s robe, blue is connected with the virtuousness and chastity of a bride. The negative aspects of figurative uses of blue arise from fear, fighting, despondency, and tabooed language and behaviour. It is arguable that the use of blue to speak about these topics is euphemistic and that uses of blue are rarely dysphemistic. Colour terms such as gold, silver, and platinum derive from the names for valuable metals from which they derive their mostly positive connotations. Other colour X-phemisms include the dysphemistic purple prose for language characterized by hyperbole and an overabundance of adjectives. The euphemism be in the pink means “to be in excellent health”; but seeing pink elephants is a playful if somewhat dysphemistic reference to inebriation.
All figurative uses of colour terms surveyed are, perhaps predictably, based upon the visual attributes of the denotatum. Although individuals may experience synesthesia when encountering colour terms, the language resources demonstrate none. My attempt to classify the connotations of English colour terms reveals networks of associations, but no surprises. Presumably the kinds of process that lead to colour terms being used X-phemistically are universal, and it would be interesting to learn the extent to which the particular kinds of X-phemism recur in different languages.
Allan, Keith. 2001. Natural Language Semantics. Oxford & Malden MA: Blackwell.
Allan, Keith. 2007. The pragmatics of connotation. Journal of Pragmatics 39.
Allan, Keith and Kate Burridge. 1991. Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and Weapon. New York: Oxford University Press.
Allan, Keith and Kate Burridge. 2006. Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Davidoff, Jules. 1997. The neuropsychology of color. In Color Categories in Thought and Language, ed. by Clyde L. Hardin and Luisa Maffi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 118-34.
Durkheim, Emile. 1963. Incest: The Nature and Origin of the Taboo. New York: Lyle Stuart. [First published 1897].
Fielding, Henry. 1749. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. London: printed for A. Millar.
MacLaury, Robert E. 1997. Color and Cognition in Mesoamerica: Constructing Categories as Vantages. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Meigs, Anna S. 1978. A Papuan perspective on pollution. Man 13: 304–18.
Miller, David L. 1997. Beyond the elements: investigations of hue. In Color Categories in Thought and Language, ed. by Clyde L. Hardin and Luisa Maffi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 150-62.
Oliver, Paul. 1970. Aspects of The Blues Tradition. New York: Oak Publications Inc. [First published as Screening the Blues. London: Cassell. 1968].
Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. 2nd edn. Oxford Clarendon Press. [Abbreviated to OED]. Also available on Compact Disc.
Ratcliffe, Floyd. 1976. On the psychophysiological bases of universal color terms. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 120: 311-30.
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Wentworth, Harold and Stuart B. Flexner. 1967. The Pocket Dictionary of American Slang. New York: Pocket Books.
The connotations of colour terms: colour based X-phemismsPosted: 13 Agustus 2010 in colour language
The connotations of colour terms: colour based X-phemisms