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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!

17 thoughts on “Color Me Irish”

  1. What about purple. I heard “corcra” is just a word that came in from Latin. In Manx, I’m pretty sure they use a word like “red-blue” or “dearg-gorm”. Irish and Manx are closely related so I’m guessing Irish used the same terminology. Was corcra a colour term in Irish, or was it simply seen as a mix of blue and red? And how you even place this on a colour wheel? Blue and red are on opposite sides of the spectrum? Scottish Gaelic uses “puraidh” though so I’m assuming purple isn’t really a colour in traditional Irish. What would you class as the basic Irish terms for colour?

    1. Colour terminology wouldn’t be my speciality but I agree that ‘corcra’ came from Latin, likewise in Welsh with ‘porffor’.
      I’m not sure if there were any other terms for purple in Irish, I’m sure there must have been.
      I will link a research paper on the colour ‘glas’ in Irish and Welsh in case you might be interested. You can view it here.

  2. If anyone should be interested, I would like to make some points on the ‘colours’; “glas”, “uaine”, “gorm” and “liath”.

    To me, liath is simply not a colour. It is an adjective similar in meaning to “sean”. It is used to describe a human hair colour that comes with age. The same colour on an animal is generally the actual colour of the animal and not the product of age. On animals, therefore, it is perfectly natural to use the most appropriate Irish word for grey, “glas”. A darker grey could be “gorm” but neither light nor dark grey is “liath”. “Gruaig liath”, to me, does mean ‘grey hair’ but it also means ‘old hair’. I would also consider pale blues and greens to be “glas”. More vibrant greens are “uaine”. More vibrant blues, darker blues and dark greens are “gorm”. Lighter green leaves are “glas” (the same colour elsewhere would otherwise be “uaine”). Darker green leaves are “gorm”. I would never use “gorm” to mean “dark” but anything English would call dark grey, dark blue or dark green would be “gorm”, so it can imply darkness although not everything “gorm” (e.g. a clear blue sky) is dark. I therefore consider “duine gorm” to be a person with dark skin (most would also have dark hair). Your implication that Irish randomly called dark-skinned people blue to avoid confusion with hair colour is almost certainly spurious.

    My opinions here are shared or at least understood by at least some native speakers in the south and west but I am yet to speak to anyone from Donegal who would agree with me, or even understand where I was coming from; people up there seem to have accepted the one-one mapping of English colours to Irish colours, resulting in apparently bizarre contradictions e.g. “iora glas” being grey and not green. No-one ever looked at a grey squirrel and perceived it to be green unless they were on drugs or someone had painted it. The important thing is that the apparent contradictions are only apparent. Understanding how colour terms are actually used in Irish (or have been used traditionally) will make them clear.

    Irish is full of examples of such things. I used to be confused by place names like “An Muileann gCearr”. I was familiar with “bád bán” and “scian ghlas”, but the eclipsis threw me. Once I learnt that we used to have a neuter case, neuter words would cause such mutations, and “muileann” used to be neuter, it all became clear.

    Irish is not English and anyone who tells you “glas” means ‘green’ and, therefore, our ancestors would have perceived trippy green squirrels running round American trees (or Irish ones after they were introduced here) is doing you a major disservice.

    1. I was looking into color terminology recently and it saddened me that traditional Irish terming hasn’t been recorded as well as other languages and that it’s almost entirely been replaced by an Anglicised misunderstood version, based on the 11 English terms. Your comment is exactly what I’ve been looking for, and I hope traditional terming will make a come back over simplified terming. Thank you so much!

  3. 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.

  4. 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 (:

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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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