Posted by: episystechpubs | December 7, 2012

Editor’s Corner: White Elephants and Rainbows

Today my fellow word nerds were debating the meaning of “white elephant” gifts and parties. Based on the discussion, I thought it would be fun to look at some other phrases revolving around color. Here are the first three colors from an article in, “Idioms Referring to Colors of the Rainbow.”


Because of the association of the color red with danger and deficits, most idioms that include the word red—for example, “in the red” (meaning “in debt”), “red tape” (referring to bureaucratic complications), and “seeing red” (being so angry that one’s vision is blurred)—have negative associations.

However, they overshadow a few positive ones: “paint the town red” (enjoying oneself dining and drinking), “red-letter day” (an occasion for celebration), and “red-carpet treatment” or “roll out the red carpet” (referring to paying special attention to someone, based on the color of carpeting usually seen at the entrance to a gala event for celebrities or VIPs).

A red herring is a deliberate diversion, a red-eye flight is a late-night airplane trip (from the bloodshot eyes of tired passengers), and to have a red face or to go beet red is to be embarrassed.


Among the colors of the rainbow, orange is curiously absent from idiomatic usage. Although it is a bright, cheerful color often found in nature, the only common expression that uses the word orange employs the plural form referring to the fruit of that name—“apples and oranges,” meaning “unrelated subjects or issues,” to emphasize irrelevance.


The few idioms incorporating the word yellow have negative connotations. To have a yellow belly or a yellow streak down one’s back (the reason for the choice of locations is obscure) is to be a coward, and yellow journalism, based on an early comic strip character named the Yellow Kid, is that which is sensational and/or biased.

P.S. From Merriam-Webster:

white elephant


1 : an albinic Indian elephant of which more or less of the usual dark pigment is absent from the skin giving it a pale color and which is rare and sometimes venerated in India, Ceylon, Siam, and Burma
2 a : a property requiring much care and expense and yielding little profit b : an object (as a gadget or trinket) that is no longer esteemed by its owner though not without value to others <conducted a white elephant sale to help the church>

Kara Church

Senior Technical Editor

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