The colours of English

Diterbitkan: Jumaat, 10 April 2009 12:00 AM

(Ubah saiz teks)

THE natural world is not monochromatic. From outer space, our home planet appears blue – hence the appellation Blue Planet – because of the vast expanse of water over 70% of the planet’s surface.

Much, much closer to home, our world is not like that depicted in the photographs and movies of yesteryears, the ones cast in sepia tone or black-and-white. Rather, it is a vibrant world of colours of the rainbow, and more – in the minerals in the ground and in the flora and fauna around us.

The physiological perception of colour is a complex one. One can talk of colour in terms of hue, brightness, and saturation. Hold on – we are not delving into optics. A ramble in the English language makes one realise how colourful the language can be with the incorporation of the names of colours! But some of the colourful expressions set me wondering ...

Let us look at a few examples.

Black, white

These colours appear in the similes black as night and white as snow. Just ponder – are these locutions truly applicable in the modern urban setting? Completely turning away from electrical power for a scarce hour did not happen, even during the recent call for an Earth Hour; and snow can hardly be white with all the polluting particles around us.

There are some interesting observations to be made about the colour black.

It is the colour of mourning (although, among the Chinese, white serves the same purpose as well). To get a pledge or an agreement in black and white simply means to get it in writing. A blackboard is not necessarily black. It is desirable for a company to get back into the black again – meaning “to become profitable again”. Yet it is not desirable to get into someone’s black book – which is a book listing people for disdain, censure, contempt, or punishment.

Red

I wonder why children with ruddy cheeks are described as rosy-cheeked. I have seen roses that are white, yellow, pink and even purplish. Why do we not just say “red-cheeked” to be more truthful?

Then there is the adjective red-faced, meaning “ashamed or embarrassed”. Some of my friends become “red-faced” when they have had a bit too much alcohol – but they are not the least ashamed or embarrassed about the condition.

What about the expression to see red and what of its origin? The expression, meaning “to become enraged”, obviously comes from bullfighting. Yes, the bull is enraged, but by what? By the mere red colour of the matador’s cape? Or by the stylised sway and swirl of his cape? Or by the fact that the animal has been suitably goaded into a rage by fancifully-named stage-hands sticking fancifully-named knives into the animal before the matador makes his entrance to finish off the poor animal?

A favourite of officialdom is red tape – no, not the red- or pink-coloured ribbons for tying together official files, but “the excessive bureaucracy or adherence to rules, especially in public business”, “excessive formality and routine, as in multiplicity of forms, records, and often unnecessarily detailed information required before action can be taken”.

With red tape, tinpot Napoleons in the civil service can take their time to perform a service or derive dubious pleasure in placing obstacles in the path of someone applying for, say, a licence or permit. Why is there a need to cause misery in a convert who has to be classified, and therefore treated, as a Muslim against that person’s will? Why does an application for permanent stay or for citizenship for a foreign spouse take forever?

Blue

People are generally fascinated with blue-blooded personages. Ah! So monarchs and aristocrats have blue blood. So have horseshoe crabs, those creatures that have existed since prehistoric times. I wonder whether the bluebloods can trace their genealogy to the said living fossils.

Green

Why do we say that a person turns green with envy? I have never seen a green-coloured person, no matter how envious he is. In fact, green is the soothing colour of verdure, “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d”. Thank goodness there is a greater awareness and respect for the environment. The word green has even become a verb.

On a more mundane level, I have to contend with pests and diseases to keep my garden plants reasonably healthy and productive. My neighbours have no such problem. They have green thumbs. I checked – their thumbs are anything but green!

Yellow

I wonder why a cowardly person is called yellow. A jaundiced person is yellow and, by extension, cowardly. Right?

Parting note: Once in a blue moon, I get the blues. Then I read that one can get over the blues by singing the blues. Now when I sing the blues, my neighbours see red.

iklan

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