Our blog posts about idioms are some of the most popular ones for our readers. Recently, we’ve posted two about idioms that use names for colours – the first one was Seeing red and green with envy, followed by Black sheep and white lies.
One of our readers commented on the second post: she wondered whether any of the expressions to do with the colours black and white were racist in origin. We replied, “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 colours, 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.”
After that response, some people asked questions about other idioms that may be racist. Because we take very seriously our responsibility to help people use English accurately and effectively, we think it’s important to say more about this topic. You may want to look back at the Black sheep and white lies post because we will mention some of the idioms from that post here.
When colours in idioms refer to actual colours
From the earliest recorded literature, humans have associated colours with ideas. Not all colour associations are common to all cultures: for instance, after Queen Victoria wore a white wedding dress in the early 19th century, white became associated with bridal purity (=moral goodness) in many English-speaking countries. In those same countries, black is worn at funerals, and wearing red can be associated with not having good morals. But in many cultures in Asia, white is a colour for funerals, and red is a symbol of good luck.
Many idioms use a colour because the thing they refer to is that colour: someone with bruises is called black and blue because those are the colours that fresh bruises are. The idiom in the black, meaning to have money in your account, comes from the colour of ink: black ink was for positive balances in ledgers, and red ink for negative ones (so “in the red” means to be in debt). Because the colours black and white represent opposites, some idioms also use them to talk about contrasts. If you say something is “right there in black and white” you are talking about something that is clearly written, black ink on white paper, about which there can be no mistake.
When colours in idioms refer to ideas associated with those colours
However, English is the language of a culture that does often associate the colour white with things that are pure, with no dirt or no faults – with being “as white as snow.” And the culture also often associates the colour black with bad things, so there are many idiomatic expressions that use these positive and negative senses of the words white and black. (For example, white knight, someone who buys a company to save it, and black knight, someone who tries to take over a business when the owner doesn’t want to sell it.)
Since ancient times, many human cultures have associated day/light/white with perfection and goodness, and night/dark/black with danger and evil. That is not itself a racist thing. What is racist is taking this association of whiteness with purity and blackness with evil, and applying it to people – when people who happen to be paler see themselves as better than people who happen to be darker, and then use their power to treat darker people unfairly or cruelly.
The use of the words white and black to describe people’s skin (and yellow and red, which are offensive, and brown, which is often now used in a positive way to include Latinx people) developed independently from the use of colour words in idioms. But idioms that didn’t originally have anything to do with perceived race feel, to many people, as though they do – particularly the ones that associate a colour with either purity or evil. So it really doesn’t matter where an idiom came from: what matters is how it makes our fellow humans feel when they hear it. It is perfectly possible to find other words and phrases to express our ideas so that we avoid offending people. The language is rich enough.
Languages are living things. At Cambridge Dictionary, our job is to continue to describe English as it changes and to provide our users with the best guidance about how to use it. Our entries for the word racism and many words related to it are not wrong, but they could be better. So, as part of Cambridge University Press’s commitment to change, we are now working to update a number of entries – for example, to reflect the most recent scholarship about what the differences between racism, prejudice, bias, and stereotyping are. And this conversation about colour idioms has made us aware that we need to expand our usage notes to suggest alternatives to expressions that could be perceived to be offensive.
Paying attention to how language is used and experienced, and then updating the Cambridge Dictionary definitions and guidance, is not an activity that will ever be “done.” It is, and will continue to be, at the heart of what we do as the publishers of the world’s most popular online dictionary for learners of English.