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Pardon? Colourful French phrases

Pardon? Colourful French phrases

Emma-Jane Lee, our language expert, explores a kaleidoscope of French expressions…

learn-french-expressionsOnce in a blue moon, you might want to get your grey matter working. A golden opportunity might leave you tickled pink, but a lot of red tape might leave you thoroughly browned off. If you want a foreigner to see red, try explaining how a blue-blooded aristocrat is different from a blue-collar worker. Let’s hope by the end, it’s all black and white.

French is no different, of course. There are hundreds of expressions with colours, as there are in English. You might be the red lantern or drink the big red, see pink elephants or have a green bellybutton.

Being the red lantern or être la lanterne rouge in French means that you are in last place or that you are the loser. It’s an expression you might hear used to talk about the last position on the Tour de France or the football team finishing last in the league. It goes back to the old tradition where the last vehicle in a convoy or the last vehicle on a train would carry a red light and so it has come to mean anyone in last place.

Another expression with red is to fire red cannonballs, tirer à boulets rouge, which means to give someone a sound telling off. Some general or other from the past had the great idea of making cannonballs a little more potent by heating them up until they were glowing red, so they didn’t just cause destruction, but acted as an incendiary as well. Thus, if you fire red cannonballs at someone, you are really giving them a verbal battering.
A final expression using red is boire le gros rouge means to drink the big red, referring to mass-produced red wine of cheap quality. Plonk for short. You can also have le gros rouge qui tache, or the big red that stains: a very poor quality wine indeed!

If you drink too much of the big red, you may find that you start seeing pink elephants, or voir des éléphants roses, which is a way of saying you are having hallucinations. But you can also see everything in pink, voir tout en rose, which means to see the world through rose-tinted spectacles, to be an optimist. You can also say je vois la vie en rose or I see life in pink, which means a similar thing. This expression has become hugely popular as it was Edith Piaf’s signature tune.

Having a green navel or avoir le nombril vert is not an unfortunate medical condition but a little-used expression meaning to be innocent, or to be too young or immature. As in England, expressions using green can be used to mean innocent or naïve. Another green expression is ‘green fire’, which might seem a little unusual if you don’t know that les feux are also the traffic lights and le feu vert means the green light. Getting the green light means you can move ahead, just as it does in English.

There are many French expressions using the colour blue, and if you live in the countryside, you are quite likely already to have come across un bleu or ‘a blue’. This refers to un bleu de travail or the classic blue overalls which are still very popular for workers. Un bleu can also be a bruise, similar to the English expression of being black and blue.


If something passes to blue, passer au bleu, it means something you have deliberately forgotten, something you have wiped from memory. It comes from the practice of using indigo to brighten whites, so if you washed something with bluing, you would be whitening it once more. We might use wiping the slate clean in the same sense.

A famous and well-known French expression that has crossed the channel is the catering expression of cordon bleu or a blue cord. But why do we call our master chefs and expert cooks a cordon bleu? It is in fact the same derivation as a blue riband, an award of merit.

Finally, expressions using white include a very familiar éléphant blanc or ‘white elephant’, meaning something monumental but hugely costly and mostly useless. One of the more unusual expressions using white is une nuit blanche or a white night, meaning a night without sleep.

So now you have mastered this rainbow of French expressions, you should no longer be in the dark over this grey area. When it comes to speaking French, you will pass with flying colours.