Colour Idioms

Idioms | Vocabulary | Listenings


I am determined to make idioms as accessible for all students as any other part of the English language. Reading and memorising lists of vocabulary is not the most productive, interesting, or useful exercise in English language learning. I created these Activities to encourage you to not only learn and remember many English idioms, but also to have fun with them, as having fun is a great aid to learning and remembering. It is important that you know as many idioms as possible as native English speakers use them with alarming regularity. I hope that as you work your way through the Idiom Activities you will make some of the idioms your own and use them regularly like a native.


Did you know that there are over 600,000 words in English? That's a lot of words, and far more than any human being could ever manage to learn. Even Shakespeare only used around 55,000 different words in all of his works. Mind you, he did actually invent quite a few of them. To get a good mastery of English, you do need to expand your vocabulary as much as possible. The more words you know, the better your English will be. The Activities here will help you to quickly develop your vocabulary.


Reading is the easiest way to take in English. Listening is a much harder skill and one that has to be developed as you study the language. There are lots of speech features that arise when native English speakers speak English. These speech features, such as elision, simplification, intonation, stress, and rhythm, and the way in which speakers may miss out sounds or whole words, are important to understand if you are to be able to listen to and fully understand spoken English. These Britlish Library Activities will help you to develop you listening skills.  

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Idioms are expressions that are natural to native English speakers. They are very confusing for non-native English speakers. They're confusing because idioms don't mean what the words say. You cannot literally translate English idioms into another language. For example: A black mark has a literal meaning of a black mark on clothing or any other material. It also has a non-literal meaning of a record of something bad you have done. This lesson uses a video English lesson about colour idioms which I made in 2010, and which has been very popular on YouTube.     

English Colour Idioms

Idioms are expressions that are natural to native English speakers.

They are very confusing for non-native English speakers.

They're confusing because idioms don't mean what the words say.

You cannot literally translate English idioms into another language.

For example:

A black mark has a literal meaning of a mark on clothing or any other material that is black.

A black mark has a non-literal meaning of a record of something bad you have done.

He didn't do his homework so that's another black mark against him.

A Taster of What's to Come

The origin of many English idioms is a grey area.

This video marks a red-letter day for all students of English.

If you've been feeling blue because idioms have left you browned off, you will be tickled pink by this video.

Don't be yellow when it comes to learning English colour idioms.

I'm giving you the green light to understand them.

Video lessons like this come around once in a blue moon.

I can tell you about English colour idioms until I'm blue in the face, but you have to make an effort to remember them.

So get the grey matter going and watch the rest of this video.

You will soon be able to do the quiz with flying colours.

Your friends will be green with envy.

There are no red herrings in this video; it's black and white and should be read all over.

Black Sheep, Black Balls and Black Lists

Are you the black sheep of your family?

A black sheep is a failure or disgrace.

Sheep are normally white. Wool comes from sheep. A sheep that is black cannot produce good wool. A black sheep is not as valuable as a white sheep for a farmer.

If you're a bit of a black sheep and you ask for a loan, the bank manager might blackball you. This means that he will vote against you and exclude you from his borrowers. He might even blacklist you.

If you're blacklisted, you won't get a loan from anyone.

The Blues

Being blacklisted can make you blue! But banks want you to be in debt. As Publilius Syrus said, "Debt is the slavery of the free."

So banks blacklist people once in a blue moon. When there is a lot of dust in the atmosphere, the moon can look blue. This doesn't happen very often.

Unlike the moon, the sky is often blue. Something that falls out of the sky arrives without any warning.

A huge bill can come out of the blue. It can push you out of the black and into the red.

A huge bill can leave you feeling blue, unless you're a toucan or a pelican. Toucans and pelicans have huge bills, but they seem to be happy enough with them.

Some parrots are blue. Some parrots can talk. But you'll be blue in the face before you can get a parrot to recite Shakespeare.

If you're blue in the face, and you're not a parrot, you've reached the end of your patience.

Patients and Patience

If you're a doctor, reaching the end of your patients would be something of a red-letter day.

Really important and notable days are marked in red on a calendar.

Sometimes the doctor's patients are in pain. These patients can scream blue murder.

The doctor has to be patient with these patients even when they are making a lot of horrible noise and annoying everyone.

Even so, the most patient of doctors can be browned off by too many impatient patients.

When I was young my brother joined the military. I wanted to be a soldier very much and was green with envy. So, even though I was young, my parents gave me the green light to join the Royal Air Force. I joined when I was sixteen.

I was a green recruit, although my uniform was blue. New shoots on trees and plants are green and I was young and inexperienced, like a new shoot.

And because I was green they taught me to shoot.

Now I was a green soldier in a blue uniform, but I didn't have green fingers. Many people do have green fingers, but you won't notice them unless you go to their gardens.

We've already agreed that plants are green. People who touch plants a lot end up with some of the green on their fingers.

To have green fingers means that you are very good at gardening.

Pink or Grey?

You must be tickled pink by these new idioms.

I'm tickled pink that you're doing this quiz. Thank you very much.

As well as being tickled pink, you can also be in the pink.

I'm in the pink. I'm in perfect condition even though I'm grey.

I asked my wife, "Will you still love me when I'm old and grey?"

She said, "Of course I do."

I thought that was a sweet thing to say.

Of course I see the world through rose-coloured spectacles.

Red Tape, Red Hands and Red Herrings

At least I don't have to deal with a lot of red tape now that I'm an English teacher.

I hate bureaucratic rules and regulations.

When I was a policeman, all the red tape used to make me see red.

I would rather be out catching criminals red handed than dealing with the red tape.

When you're caught committing a crime we say you are caught red handed.

If you've committed a murder, you'll have blood on your hands.

But most of the time the police don't catch criminals red handed.

Often you have to deal with a lot of red herrings before you solve a crime.

A red herring is a piece of misinformation.

Red Paint and Scarlet Women

On Saturday nights the police have to deal with people painting the town red.

Painting the town red means having a good time.

From my experiences as a police officer I think the origin of this idiom is simple.

Drunken people fall over a lot or get in fights and often end up bleeding in the street.

Anyone out painting the town red, who isn't bleeding, might nevertheless meet a few scarlet women.

A scarlet woman is a sinful woman, especially a prostitute.

Scarlet is a brilliant shade of red.

A Little White Lie

There's a lot of new language here, isn't there? You must be getting tired. Don't worry. Every cloud has a silver lining.

This means that every difficult situation has a good side to it.

We say this to encourage people who are having trouble coping with something.

We're almost done now.

That's a little white lie.

There are still several idioms to go.

Normally I'm whiter than white and would never tell a lie.

I told a white lie just to be polite and to keep you happy.

Did you turn as white as a sheet when I said there were more idioms to come?

Who's Yellow?

Come on! Don't be yellow.

To be yellow, to have a yellow streak or to be yellow-bellied, means that you are afraid of something.

Colour idioms shouldn't make you yellow.

Your True Colours

Show your true colours! If a ship showed false colours, they could trick you into thinking they were your friend. If you show your true colours, you are telling the world the truth.

Show your true colours and everyone will see what you are really like.

Nail your colours to the mast and never stop improving your English.

In naval battles your colours were your ship's flags. If you took them down, you surrendered.

If you nailed them to the mast so that they could not be taken down, you were saying you were never going to surrender.

So never give up.

Learn these colour idioms and you'll easily be able to do the quiz questions. In fact, you'll do them with flying colours.

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