This is the second of two posts that focus on idioms that contain a word for a colour. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at blue, green and red idioms. This week, we’re rather monochrome, looking mainly at idioms with ‘black’ and ‘white’ in them.
The phrase in black and white is sometimes used to mean ‘in writing’, usually in the context of proof: I could scarcely believe it was true, but there it was, in black and white.
Someone who sees things in black and white judges people and their actions in a way that is too simple, viewing them as either good or bad, right or wrong: Richard has a tendency to see things in black and white. We also say that something isn’t a black-and-white issue, meaning that it isn’t clear what is right and what is wrong: There are so many elements to be considered here – it isn’t a black-and white issue. The phrase shades of grey (UK)/gray (US), meanwhile, refers to a situation in which it is not clear what is right and wrong: There are no shades of grey in this novel – Alex is perfect and Daniel is a monster.
If someone is black and blue, they are covered in bruises (= injured, dark areas of the skin): Look at your arms – you’re black and blue!
A black sheep is a family member who the rest of the family disapprove of because of their behaviour: He’d got into debt when he was young and walked out on his wife. He was kind of the black sheep of the family.
If someone criticizes another person for a bad characteristic that they have themselves, you might describe this as the pot calling the kettle black. Ellie described Tom as self-obsessed. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!
If someone is as white as a sheet, their face has suddenly lost its usual warm colour, because they are afraid or shocked: The driver was unhurt, but he looked as white as a sheet.
In UK English, someone who is whiter than white is morally perfect, never doing anything wrong. This phrase is often used when suggesting that a person is not, in fact, perfect: We were meant to believe that she was whiter than white. The truth was perhaps a little different.
Finally, a white lie is a lie that is told in order to be polite or to prevent someone from being upset by the truth: To be honest, I didn’t really like her hat so I told a little white lie.
39 thoughts on “Black sheep and white lies (Idioms with colours, part 2)”
Really interesting information, but I have a doubt, historically, are these expressions origined from racism? That’s something that I’ve been thinking about.
Thanks for your question. Your instinct to examine the language is a good one, since there are so many words and phrases that have been used in the past which we now see are offensive. It’s also true that the words “black” and “white” can simply be used as names for colors, and they are widely used that way in many idioms. We don’t provide word origins on our website, but any words or phrases that are offensive have the label ‘offensive’. And we update the website frequently, so as the language changes, we also change the advice we give about using it.
Life is what you make it don’t judge a book by its cover
I really admire reading the stuff provided on this App. Wish to have many more notes
Hi! That’s nice to hear, thank you! Keep checking in as we change the posts regularly.
We use the same idiom in Spanish, black sheep, but for white lies we have mercy lies. I love black and blues, didn’t know that one. TKS i enjoy your blog, incredible useful
Thank you so much! I’m very pleased you find it useful. I love the phrase ‘mercy lies’, by the way – so apt. In fact, I think I’m going to start using it!
I think i should read the comments regularly as i get additional knowledge here. I loved this phrase ‘mercy lies’. it actually sounds perfect. And the use of ” black and white” was so black and white because it is in black and white, and trust me it is not a white lie. 🙂
Did you mean for the US spelling to be “gray”?
Yes. many thanks for pointing that out, Dan. We have changed it now.
Sorry it was kinda cool
Regards.one phrase is yet confusing to me for it’s meaning.
“”Then what does the phrase means “whiter than white’yet i’m not clear about the actual meaning of it.please help me who understood well.
I have always used one or the other. Gray or grey. I had lived in England till fifth grade, then dad was transferred to the U.S. I have always been confused with spelling! Haha
We use “black sheep” and “as white as a sheet” in Portuguese too 😀
This a good website,it helps my homework very much！
Thank you for the post! It was very interesting to read. I think idioms are the most interesting part of language language learning. My native language is Russian and we use the idioms “black sheep” and “as white as a sheet” too. By the way, my favourite idiom from this post is “the pot calling the kettle back” – it’s such an interesting expression!
The blog was really enthralling
very educative, i really enjoyed it. but i need more light on the idiom “whiter than white” thanks.
Thanks a million… I really love Cambridge dictionary… Learnt many things and wanna learn more….
Good stuff, Explained very well !!
I really liked the content and here in Dominican Republic we tend to say: the black sheep in the family too. But related to black and blue not too much. I loved it and found it useful i will be watching for new post. Have a really good one.
That was really helpful!
This will sure help a lot! thank you
This will sure be helpful! Thank you.
How interesting is this article, I am a english student and liked it a lot, thanks!
I am a big fan of these articles which I found to be extremely useful especially for students who are willing to sit for the Cambridge English Exam.
As to pot calling the kettle black, it’s funny that we have the same idiom in Polish with exactly the same wording. And it also sounds a bit dated in Polish, like 18th or 19th century. I wonder where did it come from, maybe France? We used to borrow a lot from French in the past centuries. It could be also English, however French was way more popular at the time.
Interesting and quite useful idioms with comprehensive explanation. Handy especially on the Cambridge English Exams.
This information is quite interesting, I hope that there will be more such stuff. Idioms is the most fascinating part in every language
Many thanks for all your nice comments!
Could I ask you, Kate?
It’s the phrase I’ve just heard in the play “Deep blue sea”.
One character says there: ” And all [attempted suicide] because you forgot her birthday? That’s just the sort of BLACK I’m always putting up with Liz [his wife].”
What does ‘black’ mean here? Which idiom is it part of?
I always enjoy reading your and Liz Walter’s posts.
Hello! I’m really glad you enjoy reading our posts! I’m afraid I may have to disappoint you here. I’m not familiar with ‘black’ being used in this way and can’t think of any idiom that it’s part of. Sorry!
Really this is very important and interesting thing
I’m glad to hear it! Thank you.
how do i get new posts please?
Hello! We publish a new post every week (on Wednesday) so you can keep checking in, if you like, or you can search all my posts by scrolling up and clicking on my name (Kate Woodford) or my colleague’s name (Liz Walter) on the right of this page. I hope that helps!
You can find new posts every Wednesday at https://dictionary.cambridge.org/
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My understanding is that “black sheep” comes from the fact that among the kinds of sheep that are mostly raised in Europe and North America, there a only a few black individuals, so they stand out as different from the rest of the herd. Also, black wool is of limited usefulness because it can’t be dyed. (I’m not sure, but it may also be of a coarser texture.) It has nothing to do with black or white as symbols.
An interesting aside: In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy, the mother of the family weaves white and black wool together to make “sheep’s gray” cloth.