Deutsch, Language

Making Blue and Travelling Black: Colour-based Idioms in German

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?

blau machen

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!

blau sein

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!

rot sehen

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!

schwarz fahren

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!


2 thoughts on “Making Blue and Travelling Black: Colour-based Idioms in German”

  1. I live in the USA, and have never heard of “green fingers”; here it’s always been “green thumb.” In fact I had to re-read to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood you.

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