Black sheep and white lies (Idioms with colours, part 2)

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by Kate Woodford

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)

  1. Milena

    Really interesting information, but I have a doubt, historically, are these expressions origined from racism? That’s something that I’ve been thinking about.

    1. 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.

  2. Lorena Mabel Fernández Comesaña

    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

    1. Kate Woodford

      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!

      1. Payal Tanwar

        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. 🙂

      1. Dear, 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.

      2. fransai09

        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

  3. Elizaveta

    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!

  4. Bhagyashree Sonawane

    Thanks a million… I really love Cambridge dictionary… Learnt many things and wanna learn more….

  5. Bryan Rosa Contreras

    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.

  6. Denise

    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.

  7. 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.

  8. Maria

    This information is quite interesting, I hope that there will be more such stuff. Idioms is the most fascinating part in every language

  9. Maria

    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?
    Thank you.
    I always enjoy reading your and Liz Walter’s posts.

    1. Kate Woodford

      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!

    1. Kate Woodford

      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!

  10. 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.

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