Discover 5 colorful expressions and their odd origin

Do you want to know what “red-hot”, “white elephant” and some more expressions mean and where they come from? Keep on reading!

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels

Not everything is black and white, some things are very colorful, like the 5 expressions we have for you today. Have you ever found yourself wondering where some expressions come from? This is a golden opportunity to find out the meaning and origins of some idioms related to colors! 


Whether something is very successful, new, or passionate, “red-hot” can be used to describe it. Red-hot means extreme, both in the positive and negative sense. Red-hot news are very recent, while red-hot arguments are aggressive. But where does the expression come from? Blacksmiths have to heat iron to very high temperatures in order to work with it, so when it reaches this level of heat, the iron burns bright red. That is why “red-hot” started meaning something that is extremely hot and now it has expanded its meaning to other areas.

Black money

Black money is all income obtained illegally that is not reported for tax purposes to the government. It is also known as “dirty money”, because dirty and black are synonyms in the sense of “shady” and “improper”. However, it seems like “black money” derives from “black market”. The origin of “black market” is not precise, but it is believed the term was coined after World War I to describe unauthorized dealing of commodities and it exploded after World War II due to strict rationing and limited trading between sides.

White elephant

This expression refers to something that is very expensive but has no useful purpose. It is often a burden and very difficult to get rid of as a result of its monetary value and uselessness. The origin of this expression goes back to 1851 when, supposedly, the King of Siam used to give white elephants as a gift to courtiers he disliked. The reasoning was that albino elephants were sacred and could not be put to work, therefore, the recipient of the gift had to feed and maintain the elephant without profiting from it in any way.

Once in a blue moon

This common expression refers to something that rarely happens. However, if we used the original meaning, it would mean something that will never happen. So, what changed? Originally, in the 16th century, saying “once in a blue moon” or “when the moon is blue” meant something impossible because the moon is white/gray, not blue (or any other colour, for that matter). Centuries later, the moon did appear blue in some occasions, like when the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa exploded in 1883, or in 1927 when the Indian extra-long dry season blew up enough dust for a blue Moon. This meant that blue moons did happen, although rarely, and it led to the main meaning of “once in a blue moon” we use nowadays.

Green with envy

This expression that means to be very jealous or envious has a curious origin. Green is usually associated with sickness, but green and pale used to be alternate meanings of the same Greek word (χλωρός, /xloˈros/). In literature, the poetess Sappho described the face of a stricken lover as green. Later on, Ovid, Chaucer and Shakespeared also used green to describe jealousy, most notably in Shakespeare’s play Othello, when Iago warns Othello: “Beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” If you are wondering why green, it was believed by ancient Greeks that jealousy entailed an overproduction of bile, which cast a green tint to the person.

Do you want more of these expressions and their origin? Let us know below!

Discover the origin of more words and different facts in our English section.

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