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Color Me Irish

As I was walking with my dog (Wiley, the Irish-speaking poodle) on this beautiful autumn morning, my mind quite naturally turned to colors…particularly the golds, oranges, and browns of a typical California October.

A passing comment

What really got me thinking, however, was when I heard a passerby say “Oh look at the cute black poodle.” That got me thinking because Wiley isn’t technically “black”…he’s what we in the poodle world call “blue” (a very dark gray with a bluish cast).

Of course, that term means nothing to someone who isn’t what my husband calls a “dog nerd” (I can say that because I am one!). Depending on the light in which they see him, most ordinary people would simply say that Wiley is “black” or “gray.”

The Irish world of color

The ancient Irish people interpreted color very differently from what we English speakers are accustomed to, and some of those differences have come down to us in the contemporary form of the Irish language.

This often poses a problem for learners of the language, especially as colors are typically among the first things any language learner learns.

One difference: red and green

No, I’m not talking about color blindness here! (though it is an interesting topic). I’m talking about the fact that Irish uses different words for “red” and “green,” depending on what they’re applied to (as well as, sometimes, the particular shade or hue).

Dearg or Rua?

In English, we use the word “red” to refer to just about every “reddish” shade or hue, from the coppery color of a fox or the rusty shade of oxidized iron to the shiny paint of a bright red sports car.

In Irish, however, there are different terms. Red fur, for example (or red hair on a human) is rua (roo-uh), whereas the red of something that is dyed or painted red is dearg (jar-ug).

In fact, most things that fall into the child’s paint box category of red (a red rose, for example, or a red apple, or red lips) is dearg, not rua.

Some books on Irish try to make this a “natural” versus “colored/painted” thing, but it’s really not that clear cut. Nor is rua limited to hair or fur (for example, The Red Sea in Irish is “An Mhuir Rua” and redwood timber is adhmad rua).

Glas or Uaine?

Irish also has two terms for the color “green”: glas (glass) and uaine (OO-in-yeh). Most learners start by thinking of glas as the color of natural things, such as grass or leaves, and uaine as the color of artificial things, such as green paint or cloth.

Often books will make the distinction based on intensity, pointing out that uaine is a particularly vivid shade of green. But again, it’s not all that clear-cut, as the green on the Irish national flag, while not all that vivid, is referred to as uaine.

Fifty Shades of…Green?

Another source of confusion for learners is that glas is also used to refer to gray animal hair or fur. For example, a gray horse would be capall glas, not, as you might expect, capall liath (liath, pronounced lee-uh, is the correct word for “gray,” however, when referring to human hair).

(So now I have a new conundrum! Is Wiley “blue” (gorm, pronounced gur-um), “gray” (liath)…or is he actually glas? This is making my head hurt!)

An púdal glas nó púdal gorm mé?

And speaking of heads…

In English, when speaking of hair color, we tend to say things such as “she is a red-head” or “I saw a man with gray hair.” As you might expect, Irish does things a little differently.

In Irish, we would say “tá sí rua” (tah shee roo-uh) or “chonaic mé fear liath” (hon-ik may far lee-uh) — literally “she is red” or “I saw a gray man.”

That’s right…when we speak of a person’s color in Irish, we’re referring to his or her hair color, not, typically, to his or her skin color.

Which, of course, leads to a bit of a problem when describing a dark-skinned person, such as a person of African descent. You can’t say “black” (dubh — pronounced “doo” or “duv,” depending on dialect) or “brown” (donn — pronounced “dun”), as this would be taken to refer to the person’s hair color, not his or her skin color.

And saying something like “duine le craiceann donn air (“a person with brown skin”) is, admittedly, a bit of a mouthful.

So now we’re back to blue

Irish has solved this particular conundrum by co-opting a color that is not (normally) seen in human hair. That’s right…brown-skinned people are referred to in Irish as gorm (gur-um): blue.

What this means for blue-haired old ladies or punk rockers I have no idea!

(Is your head spinning yet?)

And that’s not all!

Here are a few more interesting (and sometimes confusing) aspects of the Irish use of color terminology:

  • Buí (bwee) means “yellow”…unless you’re speaking of animal fur or hair, in which case it means “tan.”
  • A person with yellow (blond) hair, however, is fionn (“fyun”) — “fair” — not “buí.”
  • Airgead (air-uh-ged), “silver,” (which also means “money”) is not used as a color term in Irish. Instead, “silvery” things are either geal (“gyal” — “bright”), liath (lee-uh — “gray”), or even sometimes bán (“bahn” — “white”), depending on a variety of factors.
  • White wine, on the other hand, is usually referred to as “fíon geal” (“fee-un gyal” — “bright wine”), even though it’s generally more of a yellow.
  • “Bán” (bahn) means “white,” but it can also mean “blank,” “fallow,” or “empty.”
  • “Orange” as in the fruit is oráiste (or-ahss-cheh), but the color “orange” is flannbhuí (“flan-vwee”)…unless you’re speaking of an Orangeman, in which case you say fear buí (far bwee). Yep, there’s that yellow again!

Come to think of it, I guess my canine color conundrum isn’t such a big deal after all!

11 thoughts on “Color Me Irish”

  1. Kathleen Brennnan Mammoser

    I just came across this site and here is my question. If a person is fair in color (light skinned), what is the Irish word for it?
    Thanks in advance for your answer.

  2. Ádhamh Mac Conchobair

    Is fiondaite (Winecolour) it’s own thing? Also an fhomháir & rósdaite.
    Also is bándearg a common word or is dearg just used more often and corcra (I heard corcra isn’t used too often) what is used in it’s place?

    And I feel like we need to stop basing Irish colours off English ones. Gorm doesn’t just refer to blue and neither does buí for yellow ect. I feel like we need a colour chart to help distinguish, like the one created for the himba language. Irish colours are so unique and teaching them like they mean the same thing as english is erasing culture (:

  3. What terms (are) used for the rainbow of colors, ROYGBIV in English?
    Is it Dearg Oráiste (Flannbhuí?) Buí Uaithne (Glas?) Gorm Plúirineach Corcairghorm, or what?
    Is there a common mnemonic as Gaeilge, or even a recherché mnemonic?

    1. Hi Martin,

      You’re right, the colours of the rainbow (bogha báistí) are: dearg, oráiste, buí, glas/uaine, gorm, plúiríneach, corcairghorm.

      I have never come across a mnemonic for the rainbow in Irish, or the English one either for that matter. You could create your own though, either DOBGGPC, or DOBUGPC, depending on what you call the colour green.

  4. Hi, Fascinated with this article and want to discover more. Never knew that about flannbhuí. But over on Teanglann for Orange they have “dath oráiste” for “orange colour”. Why not “dath flannbhuí”? Would love more info on the differences here/Bheinn fíorbhuíoch díot as breis eolais maidir leis na difríochtaí atá i gceist anseo.

  5. Great entry, Audrey! Very interesting.
    I came across the fact, that the irish call somebody with red hair “rua” before. We do that as well here, where I live, whilst the germans use the simple red.


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