Just like in English, there are plenty of idioms in German that use colours. But, as is typical of language, the translations aren’t easy. Often, colour idioms in German are completely different in English and their English translations don’t actually include colours. That’s the same the other way round, mind: in German, you can’t have the blues or tickle somebody pink – though apparently for the latter the Germans are as happy as snow kings (sich wie ein Schneekönig freuen… is that a thing, Germans?!).
Here is a selection of colourful idioms in the German language. I’ve gone for two of each of blue, red, yellow, green and black.
Can you guess what they mean before reading the English translation?
literally: to make blue
English: to skive/skip school
If you want to skip school because you really can’t be bothered (happens to the best of us) then, in German, you make blue. Why is that? No idea. But that’s what you do!
literally: to be blue
English: to be drunk
First making blue, not actually being blue! The phrase “to be blue” is one of many phrases in German to state that somebody is drunk. Funnily enough, as you may have noticed, if you’re blue in English, then that means you’re unhappy.
einen roten Faden haben
Literally: to have a red thread
English: to have a clear structure
If something has a red thread, it means it has a nice, clear structure. In fact, in Hannover there is a “red thread” painted on the ground around the city. Follow it, and you’ll have a nice, clear, structured tour of the city!
Literally: to see red
English: to see red
An expression that literally translates into English?! Who said German was difficult? Admittedly an exception, when we get mad, we see red. And the Germans do too!
gelb vor Neid werden
Literally: to go yellow with envy
English: to go green with envy
Weird, huh? Where we English turn green when we get jealous of someone, the Germans turn yellow. Same thing, different colour. Odd! I have, however, been told that at least one German was not aware of this phrase. So maybe it’s a bit old-fashioned?
nicht das Gelbe vom Ei sein
Literally: to not be the yellow from the egg
English: to not be the best
“My English is not the yellow from the egg, but it goes”. A classic German phrase that a friend told me a German had said to her many years ago. When the Germans talk about the yellow from the egg (i.e. the yolk), they are referring to something being the best (or, more usually, as in this example, not the best).
dasselbe in Grün sein
Literally: to be the same in green
English: to pretty much be exactly the same
You use this phrase if you want to describe the similarity of two objects. There is emphasis on the fact that they’re pretty much the same thing (just perhaps one or two slight differences). So, for example, if somebody were to edit a logo of a company and afterwards it looks pretty much the same as last time – it’s the same in green (despite the actual colour, of course).
einen grünen Daum haben
Literally: to have a green thumb
English: to have green fingers
Here the colour is the same in both languages. It’s the body part that differs. We focus on the fingers, the Germans on the thumbs. This is an odd one that I always get mixed up with in both languages. I’ve said “grüne Finger” (green fingers) in German plenty of times, as well as “green thumb” in English!
Literally: to travel black
English: to travel without a valid ticket
Not quite taking the black like in Game of Thrones, though arguably it may have the same consequences – travelling black in German is bad (well, I guess it is in any country really!) and it means you’re illegally travelling without a valid ticket.
sich schwarz ärgern
Literally: to annoy oneself black
English: to be hopping mad
Ha, an online dictionary gave me that English translation. I guess other ways to say it would be “to be really annoyed” or “fuming” or something perhaps a little stronger. But when Germans are annoyed with something, they annoy themselves black. Whatever that means…
*Fun fact: According to an online dictionary, you can apparently also say “sich grün und blau ärgern” which means “to annoy oneself green and blue. Such colourful annoyances!