The Color Green

Autumn here in Central Europe! Wonderful gold, yellow, brown, copper, and red leaves hanging with all their might to the branches – but not for long!


But the whole Internet will soon enough stop with their “Autumn, be nice to me” JPGs and cozy pictures of steaming tea and warm blankets to join the shrilling outcry of “WE MISS SPRING!”. That, by some crazy brain cogs moving, led me to a post on the associations with the color green in various languages, but most widely Polish (nothing about Polish for quite a while!).

The color green, as such has, IMHO, two main groups of associations: one is cultural (mostly about feelings, sensations) and one is civilizational (connected with things and globalisation of their usage).

Cultural associations

Green in this group is the color of envy, hope and freshness.
I can understand freshness and hope well – green is the color of plants in the spring, providing fresh, new food, and hope for warmer days. But why envy? Jack Tressider in his book “Symbols and Their Meaning” explains that green and envy come together precisely because of the “youthness” and “freshness” – envy is a feeling not proper for a well-mannered adult, hence it’s given to those who are young and immature.

What do we have in languages then?
Być zielonym (w czymś)” (lit. be green (in something)) in Polish means you are inexperienced in a given field – many Americans would use the noun “greenhorn” in that meaning. Japanese would also say that somebody is 青い (aoi) to mean he’s just starting out. But with Japanese there is one thing, you might have heard – 青い is a color that encompasses various shades of blue and green (and that’s a proper i-adjective), when Westerners turned out to distinguish between blues and greens, a noun of  (midori) was introduced and it means solely green. Yet, it doesn’t show up in many expressions, unless they are taken straight from Chinese. Chinese, by the way, assosciate color green with perfection and immortality (during Ming dynasty it was the color of the emperor) – mostly because of their love to gems like jade and nephrite – for example see 最青的貨 (zui qing de huo) in Chinese means “top quality goods” (lit. “the most green…”). In Japanese there’s also more neutral word of 青年 (seinen) meaning just a young man or even youth as a whole (lack of experience slightly implied *nudge nudge*) and a rude word 青臭い (aokusai, lit. having a green odour) to imply one’s not only inexperienced, but too lame
to do the job.

Then some people in English refer to jealousy or envy as “the green-eyed monster“, didn’t really catch on in the languages I speak. Polish people say “zzielenieć z zazdrości” (to turn green from envy), but even though English people use “green from envy” expression, “turning green” translated poorly to other languages – in English it means one follows pro-ecological ideas of renewable energy sources and sorting trash, in Japanese 青くなる (aoku-naru) means somebody is in a state of shock, turned pale. This is probably because of the fact that oxidized blood is red (we blush with pinkish/reddish/brownish color depending on skin tone) and the blood that is non-oxidized is blue which in combination with yellow skin tone and dim lights gives a greenish-blue result. Hence, the word 青筋 (aosuji) means a vein, especially the one on the head, that appears as a + or X sign on an annoyed Anime/Manga character’s forehead (see expression: 青筋を立てて怒る – so angry his/her veins stood out).

Green is also the color of sickness. You can “look green around the gills” or just “pozielenieć” (lit. gradually turn green) in Polish. In Japanese someone who has a green face 青い顔 (aoi kao) is weak from sickness.

Any other surprising “green idioms”? Yes!

  • bei Mutter Grün” – German for “next to Mother Green” means “in open air, outside”
  • 万緑一紅 (banryoku ikkou) – Japanese idiom literally saying “10.000 greens, on crimson” or in more poetic English “one red flower among the abundance of green leaves” is either a figure of speech meaning a beautiful woman among regular people or a high-quality item among heaps of cliche or badly made stuff
  • mieć zielono w głowie” (lit. have green in your head) is a Polish expression for falling in love or daydreaming (esp. about a crush) often given in first person exclamation of “Zielono mi!” (lit. I’m (feeling) green!)
  • nie mieć zielonego pojęcia” is a Polish equivalent of “not having the faintest idea”, but faintest was replaced with “green” for some unbeknown (at least to me) reason

Civilizational assosciations

Green propagated across the globe as the color of “OK” and “GO!”.
Hence in almost all the languages I know you can “recive or give the green light” meaning a permission was granted (“green light” in German – “grünes Licht“, in Polish – “zielone światło“, in Japanese – “青信号 (aoshingou)”, in Esperanto – “verda lumo“, in Korean – “녹색 빛을 (nogsaeg bich-eul)”, and in French “le feu vert“).

Esperanto, as “the language of hope” (espero = hope) is very fond of promoting the green color with their symbols – their flag (esperanta flago) is green with a green star (La Verda Stelo) in upper left-hand corner. You can also look up “jubilea simbolo” (jubilee symbol) – yup, green as well. Because of their obsession with green on their things, there’s an expression of “verda papo” (lit. a green pope) to name someone who endlessly about the ideals of Esperanto. It’s not good to be a verda papo, obviously. You can also hope (hehe) to receive a green card – which is a document required in the USA to work legally.

You know what else is green in the US? Dollars. When you are wealthy you could have said (it’s a bit outdated now) that you have “the greenness” or “the green stuff” – now I think most young people would think about marihuana if they heard that (a similar shift occured in Polish with the literal translation of the above phrase “mieć zielone“).

One can also have one more green thing – a thumb! When one has a green thumb – or 緑の指 (midori no yubi) in Japanese – it means that person is a great, natural-born gardener. I’m not having green thumbs, apparently, and the expression is non-existant in Polish, too. But we used to “grać w zielone” (lit. play the green) which was a common game in former generations. People playing it were required to have something green on them for the game time-span which could last up to a couple of weeks until everyone got bored. If someone was caught (at school, during a party, on the playground) without something green, s/he was eliminated. Even I used to play it, but I don’t know any primary school students who still do. As my grandma used to play it (there wasn’t an aweful lot of choice in clothes back then in Poland) – a player was required to have a fresh leaf with them wherever they go.

I was also told a story by a German friend who have an expression “das ist dasselbe in Grün” (lit. “it’s the same in green”) meaning someone sees no difference between two options. It started (and is still used in some places) in 1920s when and Opel factory in Germany produced a car almost identical to a French Citroёn, but its body color was changed to green. Strange stories behind some idioms!

OK, that’s enough for today, everybody :D!
Maybe you know some other languages with interesting expressions with color “green” in them? Please share them in the comments, that might be fun!


Also, if you want to read some more articles for me, a while back I did a guest post at Babla on Sign Languages – you can read it in English or in Polish! 🙂