Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

“Red and yellow and pink and green…” Spanish colour words, meaning & grammar (1/4)

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An overview of some basic colour words in Spanish, showing what they mean and how they work.

(Skip to after the first picture, if you’re in a hurry. If you’re into “slow reading”, please read on…)

The last Plantagenet English monarch, Richard III, suffered multiple indignities after being slain at the Battle of Bosworth: stripped of its armour, his naked body (cuerpo desnudo) was slung unceremoniously across the back of a horse, and then some peasant stabbed him in the bum (culo) with a dagger (un puñal) as a final insult. (The Age of Chivalry, ¡Un jamón!)

Worse still, when they got him to Leicester, he was buried in an anonymous car park, before being cartoon-villained by Shakespeare, who at least spared him the indignity of mentioning his rather downmarket and very unregal municipal last resting place.


Spanish_arco_iris_Rubens

Pedro Pablo Rubens, Paisaje con arco iris (h. 1636, Wallace Collection, Londres).


However, Ricardo found posthumous redemption of a sort by being immortalized centuries later (siglos después) in a schoolboy mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow (el arco iris):

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain
red orange yellow green blue indigo violet

There is no analogous mnemonic in Spanish, and in any case “indigo” is not a colour (un color) much in use. But the corresponding colours that are more or less useful go like this:

red orange yellow green blue violet
rojo naranja amarillo verde azul violeta

It’s an obvious fact of language that colours do not necessarily have the same symbolic meaning (significado) or connotations in every language: for English speakers red means danger (peligro), for Chinese speakers it means good fortune (la suerte). What follows highlights some of the similarities and differences between Spanish and English when it comes to the most common colour words. And there’s an ever so easy self-test at the end.

Rojo shares the consonant r and many associations with English red. For example, Spanish_Prince_Hsomeone with pelo rojo has red hair, and the two words combine to make un pelirrojo / una pelirroja, “a redhead.” If you’re finding it hard to visualize a pelirrojo, think of that famous royal bachelor (soltero) Prince Harry (el príncipe Henrique).

 

 

 

During the Cold War (la Guerra Fría), Soviets, communists, and sympathizers might be referred to colloquially as rojos, which was also the term Francoists used during the Civil War to demonize Republicans.

Someone who is extremely embarrassed turns red “as a tomato”, not a beetroot:

Basta1 mirarle2 para que3 se le ponga4 la cara5 como6 un tomate7. “You’ve only got to look at him and he goes as red as a beetroot”.1

And beware: for wine you use a different word: red wine is vino tinto.

Naranja. As in English, you use the same word for the citrus fruit orange and the colour, but a fruit is una naranja whereas the colour is el naranja, because all colours are masculine. Both the English and Spanish words ultimately come from Arabic nāranj , but the n at the beginning dropped off somewhere on the way to English, while Spanish kept it.


Certain colours adjectives like naranja never change to match the noun they go with: un pantalón naranja, una blusa naranja, dos blusas naranja. Such “invariable” adjectives can be used on their own, but are just as often preceded by color or de coloruna camisa color naranja/beige, una camisa de color naranja/beige.


Amarillo. Unlike the previous two, there seems nothing to connect this word and English yellow. Perhaps the double ll in both might help you to make the connection. In Spanish, you talk about the  la prensa amarilla, literally the “yellow press”, meaning “the gutter press.” Amarillo also has a negative meaning – just like English yellow = “cowardly” – when talking about “yellow unions” that represent employers’ rather than workers’ interests, los sindicatos amarillos.

To say the word, put the song “Is this the Way to Amarillo” right out of your mind. You pronounce that double ll as a sort of y, to give a-ma-ree-yo.


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Verde. Apart from being the title of a famous Lorca poem, “Verde que te quiero verde”, startlingly, for English speakers, you use the word for green in the phrase un viejo verde, “a dirty old man” and un chiste verde, “a dirty joke”. The association of verde / green with ecology is the same in both languages, as is the link with jealousy: estar verde de invidia “to be green with envy”. If you want a connection with English, think verdant. 

Verde ends with an –e. Adjectives ending in any vowel other than –o have no feminine form, but they do have a plural, i.e. verdes. There is a famous flamenco song or copla about a woman who spends a night of passion with a man with green eyes:

Ojos verdes, verdes como la albahaca.                                  Green eyes, green like basil.
Verdes como el trigo verde                                                        Green like unripe corn
y el verde, verde limón.                                                               And green, green lemons.
Ojos verdes, verdes, con brillo de faca                                    Green green eyes, that gleam like a knife
que estan clavaito en mi corazón.                                            And have stuck in my heart.

And here’s the renowned flamenco singer the late Rocío Jurado giving a wonderfully over-the-top theatrical (teatral) rendition. Not for nothing was she nicknamed La más grande (“The Greatest”).

El Greco, La Trinidad (detalle), 1577-1579, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

El Greco, La Trinidad (detalle), 1577-1579, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. I don’t think you can get much more “azul” than that.

Azul. Just as in English, aristocrats are supposed to have blue blood: veinte familias de sangre azul “twenty aristocratic families” (literally “families of blue blood”). Presumably in the same vein, someone’s príncipe azul is their “Prince Charming” or “knight in shining armour,” or even “Mr Right.”

As a cynic blogged: Las mujeres se pasan la mitad de su vida buscando a su príncipe azul, para terminar casándose con un amable fontanero.

“Women spend half their lives looking for Mr Right only to end up marrying a nice plumber.”

Just like verde, azul is one of those unreconstructed chauvinist adjectives that have no feminine, but do change for the plural, e.g. Scandinavians stereotypically have ojos azules.

This rule about adjectives not having a feminine but having a plural applies to almost all adjectives ending, like azul, in a consonant, e.g. un chico/una chica joven, un trabajo/una pregunta fácil, “a young boy/girl”, “an easy job/question”.


1The word-for-word translation is: “It is enough1 to look at him2 so that3 it to him becomes4 the face5 like6 a tomato7”.


Autotest
1. Match the Spanish phrase to the English.

a.       The Red Planet los Verdes
b.      A red alert de sangre azul
c.       blue-blooded el Planeta Rojo
d.      an orange shirt El Ángel Azul
e.      the Greens una camisa naranja
f.        The Blue Angel una alerta roja

2. ¿Verdadero o falso?

a. The English word orange is from Dutch.
b. All adjectives in Spanish change to match the noun they go with.
c. “Red wine” is vino tinto.
d. “Amarillo” as sung in “Is this the way to Amarillo” is the correct Spanish pronunciation.
e. All Spanish colour words are masculine.
f. The feminine of verde is verda.

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

8 thoughts on ““Red and yellow and pink and green…” Spanish colour words, meaning & grammar (1/4)

  1. Very nice.

    How to “monetise” it I wonder?

    Cheers h

    Sent from my fFone

    >

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  2. I think you “a sort of y” for the “ll” in amarillo is probably the best thing to tell people, but you picked a non-matching sound file.

    I don’t think your description of the “ll” im amarillo as “a sort of y” matches the sound file you reference; the sound file uses a voiced palatal plosive (IPA ɟ), or something like a “palatalised d”. It’s not the brief i-glide which is surely what y as “consonant” usually is in English – for most English speakers, that sound would be called a “j” rather than a “y” although English “j” is much more “d”-like than the sound in the file. Of course the Spanish sound varies a lot from place to place (and from person to person in a place) and “a sort of y” is a good description for large chunk of mainland Spain. But I hear that ɟ, and English j, and (IPA) ʎ (that one very rarely except when people are trying to be “very correct”) and ʃ and ʒ and ʂ and ʐ as well as that y sound.
    The “ll” in “amarillo” could be silent – as if it were written “amarío” – but I think your “a sort of y” covers that perfectly.

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  3. Hi, Tom
    Thanks for the comment. I knew that there was a mismatch, but short of doing things in IPA, I don’t know what the solution is. I think I’ll just delete the link. Btw, are you a Hispanist, a phonetician, or both, or neither? I’m intrigued. Thanks again.

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    • Neither a Hispanist nor a phonetician, actually a mathematician turned engineer. Learnt IPA in my late teens but don’t like it much now. Since I retired 7 years ago I spend about half my time in Spain, and was spending as much time as I could in Spain for a few years before that, did some intensive Spanish courses covering phonetics (both northern Spanish standard and S American and Andalucian) and one of my passtimes is listening to Spanish songs which provide me with a very wide range of Spanish pronunciations from all over. “ll” seems to be much more variable than anything else (and which b’s are lenited and which not seems to vary a lot as well)

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  4. Mil gracias Jeremy, como siempre muy didáctico y útil para mis clases. Besos Paloma

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  5. Me alegro mucho que te haya gustado, Paloma, y espero que te sea útil para tus clases. J x

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