french-colors

11 Basic French Colors… and Beyond: The Multicolored Expressions You Probably Never Learned

Want to talk about the chromatic wonders that you see around you—in French?

I’ll do you one better: Learning French colors and the words used to describe them will allow you to convey a number of other feelings and experiences, while discovering a bit more about French culture, too.

In this post, I’ll go over the words for colors in French, as well as the most common ways that you’ll likely encounter them in your kaleidoscopic French life.

Contents

1. Rose — Pink

Rose as a color adjective in French means “pink,” not the warmer crimsony color we Anglophones tend to think of when we use “rose” as a color.

As a noun, however, une rose denotes the same flower as in English. The archetypical flower purchased on the streets of Paris for your lover is a red rose, not a pink one, so yes, there’s a strange discordance between the noun and the color adjective in French.

Here’s the pronunciation of rose. Note that it contrasts with the name of the wine, vin rosé, for which one does pronounce the last letter.

Be aware that rose as an adjective is also used to describe things that are erotic/sexual, so a téléphone rose is not a pink telephone, but rather a phone sex service.

2. Orange — Orange

This color (pronounced here), as in English, is the name of the fruit as well. You can thus have jus d’orange (orange juice) at breakfast as well as marmelade d’orange (orange marmalade).

Variants include orange brûlé (burnt orange) and the intentionally vaguer orangé (orangey). (Note: orange is an invariable adjective, whereas orangé is not.) What we call a yellow stoplight is seen as orange in France: feu orange.

3. Rouge — Red

Red gets all kinds of uses and associations in English, so it shouldn’t surprise you that the same is true in French. Rouge (pronunciation here) is the color of the communists and can work as both a noun to describe such a person or an adjective to describe a viewpoint.

People like me who are rather carefree oenophiles will simply order un verre de rouge (a glass of red) in any French bar, to indicate that we could care less if it is from Bourgogne, Bordeaux, or what have you.

Here are a few other quite easy parallels to English:

  • la Croix-Rouge — the Red Cross
  • être dans le rouge — to be in the red (accounting)
  • chou rouge — red cabbage
  • alerte rouge — red alert
  • le tapis rouge — the red carpet

The lovely verb rougir means to turn red (in any sense), including to blush.

4. Jaune — Yellow

One of the most important uses of jaune (pronunciation) is in Le Tour de France; the leader in the race wears the maillot jaune, or yellow jersey.

Un jaune d’œuf (literally, yellow of egg) is an egg yolk.

As a noun, jaune is an offensive term for an Asian person as well as a scab, in the sense of somebody who goes to work during a strike.

5. Vert — Green

As with English equivalent, vert (pronunciation here) gets laden with all sorts of different symbolism and can thus be of use in many situations.

Here’s a short sampling of the most common uses:

  • le fruit est encore vert — the fruit isn’t ripe yet
  • une politique verte — a green/ecological policy
  • manger du vert — to eat vegetation (animals)
  • avoir le feu vert — to have the go-ahead/green light
  • être vert — to be furious
  • le Parti Vert / Les Verts — the Green Party
  • un citron vert — a lime (these are rather unpopular and can be hard to find in France compared to their yellow cousins les citrons, or lemons)
  • numéro vert — a toll-free number

6. Bleu — Blue

Bleu (pronunciation) has a few fun popular tasks in addition to its day job as an indicator of color. Most compellingly, un bleu is what you might get after being punched in the face (a bruise). Les Bleus is used to refer to French national sporting teams, such as the national soccer team.

You can also ask for un steak bleu, which means that your meat will barely touch the pan. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not green as you would be in English, but rather are considered un bleu.

7. Violet — Purple

Be careful not to confuse this with pourpre (see the following); these aren’t synonyms in French.

To the French eye, when you get too cold your skin turns violet rather than blue.

The pronunciation is here.

8. Pourpre — Reddish Purple

There’s a bit of debate about if or to what degree language affects color perception, but in any case, if you want to speak French you need to get used to the idea that reddish purple, or pourpre is its own category (here’s the pronunciation). Cramoisi, or crimson, is purplish red.

The French eye distinguishes pourpre from violet, which is more bluish; only the latter is what Anglophones would generally call purple. You can see an example of pourpre here.

9. Noir — Black

In addition to the simple description of color, noir (pronunciation) can be a noun for a black person. Un noir thus means a black man and une noire is a black woman.

The fun and quite useful phrase noir de monde means simply “crowded.”

In addition to its chromatic duty as a adjective, noir can mean “gloomy”; hopefully the idea of film noir now makes that much more sense.

10. Blanc — White

As a noun, blanc (pronounced here) can mean both a white person and a white wine. So le blanc boit un blanc (although it sounds a bit silly) could be used to say “the white man is drinking a white wine.”

Be careful as the feminine form is a bit different: blanche.

The noun also means “blank,” for example laisser un blanc is to leave a blank or a space in a document. And, écrit en noir et blanc means the same as in English: written in black and white.

11. Gris — Gray

In addition to its work as a color, the word gris (pronunciation) can denote the weather, particularly in Brittany or Paris: il fait gris (it is overcast/gloomy). When used to describe a person, as in Mathilde est un peu grise, it means that Mathilde is a bit tipsy.

 

I hope that this has given you a window into the colorful world through French eyes. There’s a lot to take in, and as we’ve seen, both fundamental and frivolous ways that these color words allow us to experience the world differently in French.

The next step is to put these color words to use! The French Your Way podcast has a great episode about various French expressions that use colors. Not only will you hear the pronunciation of these words, but you’ll also hear the fun expressions that can be made with them. 

You can also listen to the correct pronunciation of various color words in context with the FluentU program. This program has many authentic French videos for learners, and you can search for words to see how they’re used in context in these videos. This is useful since some of these can be difficult to differentiate (I’m looking at you, pourpre and cramoisi).

With any luck, you’ll soon be integrating this vocabulary into your own communication, thinking about and living in the colorful world it describes.


Mose Hayward blogs about the best gear for travelers at SelectoGuru.com.

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