All About Metaphors
Almost all our understanding of the world happens in terms of metaphors. This includes the most basic concepts of our existence. Good and evil, for example. And right and wrong. These concepts are expressed in terms of metaphors of light and dark, or high and low. This happens because we interpret the world through our physical senses. So if we want to speak of ignorance and knowledge, we make connections with concepts of light and dark. This is based on how clearly we see or understand something. Let’s discuss metaphors related to ‘color’ in English here.
In this context, the range of expressions that we get from ‘color,’ which is another visual metaphor, are worth examining. In English, we do have a variety of expressions based on specific colors. But even more basic is the concept of color itself. In science fiction movies that depict the end of all civilization with the last group of humans struggling to survive, the predominant color scheme is gray.
This happens because we associate colors with liveliness and variety, as well as with light. A famous quote by Francis Bacon goes: ‘All colors agree in the dark.’ After all, colors do not stand out when there isn’t enough light. In contrast, we tend to describe things that are unusually lively as ‘colorful.’ For example, when someone speaks using a lot of slang and perhaps some swear words, in English we describe it as ‘colorful language’.
Color as Influence
Similarly, we also see colors as changing the appearance or character of something. This helps us describe a strong influence using the color metaphor. In English in particular, this idiom is very important and meaningful. For example, you can say: ‘His experiences as a student activist colored the political views later in his career.’
Color can also refer to outward appearance, as distinct from reality. You can say, for example, ‘it was a lie, but it had the color of the truth.’ In the same way, we have a variety of expressions that relate to losing color, and to fading.
Given the discussion so far, what do you suppose it means when someone is described as looking ‘off-color? In English, the expression ‘off-color’ refers to someone being out of sorts, perhaps a little unwell. This expression refers to the way people look a little pale and tired. So someone sick is seen as not having their usual color. In common English usage, the expression ‘off-color’ always refers to a temporary change.
To refer to a more permanent change, we use the word ‘fade.’ For example, you can say: ‘After finishing college, his interest in playing the guitar faded away.’ This sentence imagines ‘interest’ as a visual entity with certain color intensity. So when the level of interest reduces–especially over a period of time–we see it as a process of fading.
Beyond the concept of color in general, specific colors too give us a range of fun expressions, but we will save that discussion for another day.