The colors in French seem like an easy thing to learn. After all, it’s just vocabulary to memorize, right?
Pas tout à fait (Not exactly).
Colors aren’t just a practical way to describe things. They can also add shade and nuance to your knowledge of a culture, and shed some light on a number of common expressions.
Let’s take a nuanced look at the colors in French
French color rules
Any blog post about colors should, of course, give you a list of the most common ones. But before I do that, I want to talk about how colors are used in the French language.
As a general rule, all colors in French are masculine nouns: le bleu, le rouge, le rose, etc. Example : « Quelle est ta couleur préférée ? » « Le rose.» (‘What’s your favorite color?’ ‘Pink.’)
However, as you might have noticed in that example, the word “color” in French is feminine – la couleur. Sigh….
So, you could say, J’aime la couleur de ses yeux. (I love the color of his eyes.) or J’aime le bleu de ses yeux. (I love the blue of his eyes.)
Most of the time, though, colors are used as adjectives. In this case, they follow the French grammar rule of agreeing with the noun(s) they modify. This means that it’s not enough to know that blanc means “white”; if a noun is feminine, blanc becomes blanche.
And as you’ve probably guessed, it doesn’t stop there. If a noun is plural, blanc becomes blancs or blanches.
The good news is, unlike blanc, to make most French colors agree with a feminine noun, you just have to add an “e” to the end. For example, bleu becomes bleue.
And colors that already end in “e” stay the same, whether a noun is masculine or feminine (of course, you do still have to add an “s” to them if they’re used in the plural sense).
There are two exceptions to these rules, though: orange (orange) and marron (brown) NEVER CHANGE. Regardless of the gender or number of whatever they’re modifying, they stay the same.
Michelle a deux chiennes marron et un chien blanc, et Danielle a trois chiens marron et quatre chiennes noires. (Michelle has two brown dogs and one white dog, and Danielle has three brown dogs and four black dogs.)
Tu veux terminer ce paquet de bonbons ? J’aime toutes les autres couleurs – les rouges, les verts, les jaunes, mais je déteste les bonbons orange. (Do you want to finish this bag of candy? I like all of the other colors – red, green, yellow, but I hate the orange candies.)
French colors do follow one easy grammar rule, though: They always come after the noun(s) they modify, with the occasional exception for poetic reasons.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at a list of the most common colors in French.
The most common colors in French
Wondering how to say red, yellow or blue in French?
Here are the most common French colors and their translation:
- red – rouge
- yellow – jaune
- blue – bleu/bleue
- green – vert/verte
- orange – orange
- white – blanc/blanche
- black – noir/noire
- gray – gris/grise
- brown – marron (Exceptionally, marron remains the same whether a noun is masculine or feminine)
- pink – rose
- purple – violet/violette
How to talk about colors in French
From the practical, to the technical, to the poetic, there are many ways to precisely or lyrically describe a color.
But there’s a catch. If you use an adverb with a French color, the color no longer has to agree with the noun(s) that proceed it. Consequentially, when paired with a color, these adverbs will always be in their singular, masculine forms.
For example: Pour son enterrement de vie de jeune fille, Patricia porte une perruque vert clair. (For her bachelorette party, Patricia is wearing a light green wig.).
Because perruque is a feminine noun, the adjective(s) associated with it would normally have to reflect that. But since the color (vert) is modified by an adverb (clair), not so.
Here’s another example: Au zoo de Vincennes, Charles a passé longtemps à admirer les plumes bleu foncé de l’ara hyacinthe. (At the Vincennes Zoo, Charles spent a long time admiring the dark blue feathers of the hyacinth macaw.)
So, bearing that surprising grammar lesson in mind, here are a few useful words for talking about colors in French.:
foncé – dark. Ex: Sa robe est vert foncé. (Her dress is dark green.)
clair – light. Ex : Les yeux de Paul sont bleu clair. (Paul’s eyes are light blue.)
fluo – florescent. Ex : Au début des années 90, les couleurs fluos étaient très à la mode. (At the start of the 1990’s, florescent colors were very in.)
fade – faded, washed-out. Ex: Le papier-peint du salon était fade. Sylvie avait très envie de l’arracher des murs. (The living room wallpaper was faded. Sylvie felt an urge to rip it from the walls.)
– âtre – -ish. This suffix can be used with any color in French. Although the suffix “-ish” in English could be neutral or informal, in French, it often sounds a bit literary or poetic. You’ll often see colors described this way in books or poetry. Example: Il faisait très froid. Les lèvres de Joachim étaient bleuâtres. Sandrine avait très peur. (It was very cold. There was a bluish tint to Joachim’s lips. Sandrine was very afraid.)
This thread reveals some very interesting things about -âtre. One notable thing to keep in mind is that it could be interpreted as derogatory in a situation where it would make more sense for something to simply be described with an unmodified color word. For example, if you say someone’s shirt is jaunâtre, it could be understood to mean that it’s washed-out or a strange or unpleasant shade of yellow; otherwise, why not just describe it as jaune? Of course, this all depends on context, as you can see from the example I used about Joachim’s lips.
vif – bright (literally, alive). Example : Elles se sont teint les cheveux en rose vif. (They dyed their hair bright pink.)
une nuance – a shade. If you’ve been to French bookstore (in person or online) recently, you’ve probably seen the French translation of the notorious Fifty Shades of Gray series: Cinquante Nuances de Grey.
If you want to know more French colors and more advanced color vocabulary in French, this site is an excellent resource.
A colorful exception: Talking about hair
The French colors I’ve listed are the basic ones you can use for just about anything. But when it comes to describing a person’s physical features, that’s not always the case.
When you talk about someone’s hair color, here are the words you use:
Notice that these are all in the masculine plural, since they have to agree with cheveux.
For unusual hair colors in French, just use the standard color word. If you want to specify that hair is dyed a certain color, you can say colorés en. For example, Meagan a les cheveux colorés en bleu.
If you want to talk about people with a specific hair color, you use the hair color words, just like in English.:
For the other colors, just say aux cheveux noirs/gris/violets, etc.
Note that while we use the word brun(e) to talk about brown hair, brown eyes are still the usual color name, marron.
French expressions with colors
There are many, many expressions with colors in French. Here are some of the most common.
- De quelle couleur est…? – What color is…? Example : De quelle couleur est ton hamster ?
- haut(e) en couleur – colorful. This can be used literally and figuratively. Example : C’était une soirée haute en couleur.
- changer de couleur –to change color. Example : Dans le Magicien d’Oz, Dorothée et ses amis voient un cheval qui change de couleur. (In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends see a horse that changes colors.).
- dans le rouge – in trouble/lower than your bank account limit. Example: Je dois acheter ces chaussures! Mais si je les achète, je serai dans le rouge. (I must buy these shoes! But if I buy them, I’ll overdraw my bank account.).
- le tapis rouge – the red carpet.
- être rouge comme une tomate – to be as red as a tomato (to be sunburnt or blushing). This is the equivalent of to be beet-red/to be red as a beetroot.
- rougir – to blush/to turn red.
- être sur la liste rouge – to have an unlisted telephone number.
- le Petit Chaperon rouge – Little Red Riding Hood.
- un poisson rouge – a goldfish.
- le rouge à lèvres – lipstick
- être rouge de colère – red (flushed) with anger
- être rouge de honte – red (blushing) with shame
- un gilet jaune – a reflective vest and now also a person who wears this for political reasons (we’ll come back to this phrase a little later on).
- un jaune d’œuf – egg yolk.
- un rire jaune/rire jaune –a grudging, forced, or bitter laugh/to laugh grudgingly, in a forced way, or bitterly. Note that it can be a noun or a phrasal verb. This expression is used often in French literature and I adore it. « Mais regarde notre ami Gilles, qui est habillé avec tellement d’excentricité ce matin ! » Fixant la foule, Gilles a ri jaune. (“Look at our friend Gilles here, who dressed so eccentrically this morning!” Staring into the crowd, Gilles gave a forced laugh.).
- un bleu –a bruise. Example: Pauvre Louise, elle est tombée et maintenant elle a un bleu. (Poor Louise – she fell and now she has a bruise.)
- bleu – meat cooked very rare. Example: Vous le voulez comment, votre steak ? Bien cuit ? Saignant ? – Bleu, a répondit le vampire. (“How do you want your steak? Well done? Rare?” “Very rare,” the vampire replied.)
- le bleu – blue cheese.
- un bleu de travail – a worker’s jumpsuit or overalls.
- avoir une peur bleue de quelque chose/quelqu’un – to be deathly afraid or something/someone. Example : J’ai une peur bleue d’araignées. (I’m deathly afraid of spiders.).
- vert(e) – not yet ripe. Example: Ne cueillez pas ces pommes, elles sont toujours vertes. (Don’t cut these apples from the tree, they’re not ripe yet.)
- un citron vert – a lime. Yes, that literally means “a green lemon.” Why not?
- donner le feu vert à quelqu’un/quelque chose – to give someone/something the go-ahead/to approve something. Example: Le gouvernement a donné feu vert à une loi pour limiter les déchets plastiques. (The government approved a law that will limit plastic waste.).
- un espace vert – a green space (park, garden, etc.). Example: Dans les villes, les espaces verts sont particulièrement importants. (Green spaces are especially important in cities.)
- être vert de jalousie – to be green with envy.
- être vert de rage – to be furious. Literally, to be green with rage. As this and the previous example show, green is often used to express very strong emotional reactions.
- un numéro vert – a toll-free number.
- avoir la main verte – to have a green thumb (be good at making things grow).
- une orange – an orange (fruit).
- le (vin) rouge – red wine.
- le (vin) blanc – white wine. Example : Arthur s’est assis au comptoir et a commandé un blanc. (Arthur took a seat at the bar and ordered a glass of white wine.)
- le rosé – rosé wine.
- un examen blanc – a mock/practice test.
- noir et blanc – black and white. Note that when using this phrase, you have to think about if you could simply use it to describe colors, or a process. For example, une photographie noir et blanc is a black-and-white photograph, but un film en noir et blanc includes en because it was filmed in black and white.
- Noir sur blanc – It’s written there in black and white. (It’s clear, undeniable.).
- une nuit blanche – a sleepless night. This can mean that you just couldn’t fall asleep, or that you were awake studying/worrying/partying, etc. Every October in Paris, there’s the Nuit Blanche, an all-night festival of art and music events held throughout the city.
- une arme blanche – a blade (knife, etc.).
- avoir carte blanche – to have carte blanche, the permission to do whatever you want.
- Blanche-Neige – Snow White.
- Un film noir – An atmospheric detective or crime film.
- le noir – the dark
- la peur du noir – the fear of the dark. Example: Beaucoup d’enfants ont peur du noir. (Many children are afraid of the dark.)
- avoir un œil au beurre noir – to have a black eye.
- broyer du noir – to feel down, depressed.
- être noir de monde – to be crowded, packed. Literally, for there to be so many people somewhere that the crowd is just a black mass. Example : À cause du mouvement social, la gare était noire de monde. (Because of the transport strike, the train station was very crowded.)
- le marché noir – the black market.
- Un noir d’encre – ink-black, black as night.
- un roman noir – a crime or detective novel.
- travail au noir (more commonly, travail au black) – to work off the books/under the table (to be paid without your boss/employer declaring you). Example: Les babysitters travaillent souvent au noir. (Babysitters are often paid under the table.)
- être gris/grise – to be tipsy (slightly drunk).
- La nuit, tous les chats sont gris – We’re all the same when you turn out the light. Literally, “At night, every cat is gray.”
- un mariage gris – A marriage of convenience, usually for immigration purposes.
- un marron – a chestnut.
- une rose – a rose (flower).
- à l’eau de rose – overly sentimental. Literally, “scented with rosewater.” This is often used to describe books or television series, always in a derogatory way (even if many people secretly like them). Example: Monique aime lire des romans a l’eau de rose. (Monique likes to read overly sentimental novels.)
- le téléphone rose – a sex hotline.
- voir la vie en rose – To see life in a positive way, or see life through rose-tinted glasses.
And now, my favorite French color word…
la grisaille – grayness. This word is used to describe overcast, cloudy, gloomy weather and the general ambiance that creates. It’s very common to hear it associated with the weather in Paris, where there’s often at least a few cloudy hours a day. The city’s iconic slate rooftops, which are very common in many neighborhoods, add to the grayness. La grisaille isn’t always used in a positive context – in fact, it tends to be negative, or neutral at best. But personally, dans la grisaille parisienne, je vois la vie en rose ! (In the grayness of Paris, I see life in a happy way!).
The significance of colors in French
So far, we’ve talked about the literal and figurative meanings of colors in French. But all cultures give colors another meaning, as well.
The French generally hold the same connotative definitions of colors as people in the rest of the Western world. For example, white is a color that symbolizes purity, which is why most French brides wear it. Red is a color of passion or danger, which is why warning signs, stop signs, but also sexy dresses and lipsticks are this color. Green is a color associated with nature and wellbeing, and so on. If you’d like to review or familiarize yourself with the basic meanings of colors in Western culture, here’s an article that can help.
But beyond that, national identity and everyday life plays a role, too. So, when you read/watch/listen to something from France, or if you visit or live in France, you’ll notice that in addition to their literal meanings and Western culture-related connotations, there are some colors that hold a particular significance.
The most notable one is actually a combination of three colors: bleu, blanc, rouge (blue, white, red.) These are the colors of the French flag (always said in this order, since that’s how they appear on the flag). Sometimes, especially in a historical context, this trio is called la tricolore (the tri-colored flag).
When the current French flag emerged after the 1789 Revolution, the blue and red were the colors of Paris and the white was the color of the royal House of Bourbon. Essentially, the flag encouraged unity between the king and the rest of the populace. Unfortunately, that did not end well….
Today la tricolore symbolizes national pride and unity. It never inspires fervid patriotism the way that the US flag might; instead, the French see the flag as a reminder that all French citizens are supposed to be equal. It’s an ideal. Sometimes, you’ll hear the phrase bleu, blanc, beur – blue, white, Arab (beur is verlan (backwards slang) for arabe). Although the only minority group mentioned here is people of North African descent, the implication is that all people are French, regardless of their ethnicity or skin color.
Individually, bleu and rouge each have special significance to the French, as well.
Les Bleus are the national football (soccer) team. Unlike the flag, talking about Les Bleus often will evoke a sort of passionate national pride. When there’s a match, or even in some other moment when it might seem appropriate, you’ll probably hear one of the French’s favorite phrases chanted from café terraces and other gathering places: Allez les Bleus! (Go Blues!). Like the flag, the team evokes an idealistic sense of equality, since the players come from many different ethnic, racial, religious, and social backgrounds.
Unfortunately, I say “ideal” because like most places on earth, equality isn’t actually always the case. Under French law, all citizens have equal rights, but discrimination exists in many ways in French culture. Recently, for example, antisemitism has been on the rise. Add to that the seemingly never-ending prejudice against second- or third -generation immigrants from places like north and sub-Saharan Africa, especially those who live in or comme from la banlieue (the poor suburbs around Paris; roughly the equivalent of “inner city” in the United States). There’s also prejudice against other immigrant groups, social classes, genders, sexual orientations, and so on.
In fact, many colors can be used in derogatory ways to describe people’s skin color. Generally, unless you have to describe someone in a context where race is important for identification – for example, if you’re reporting a missing person, avoid doing this. If you do have to describe a person’s skin color, never simply say “un/une [+color]”. In French, that’s racist. Instead, say, C’est un homme/une femme blanc/blanche/noir/noire. NEVER describe someone as jaune – this is a racist way to describe people of Asian background; say asiatique instead.
That’s not to say that France is a particularly hateful country. It’s just that, unfortunately, prejudice can be found anywhere and for any reason. At least the French tend to see the ideal as a society where it doesn’t exist, even if they can’t always reach that ideal.
Another color that has a special connotation to the French on its own is rouge. For the French, several colors are associated with politics or political issues, and red is a big one. It’s been associated with the extreme Left (Socialists, Communists, and other parties) since at least the mid- to late -19th century.
The Verts (Green Party) are another political movement associated with a color. As you might have guessed, they’re Leftists who fight for environmental issues.
Currently, another color has some strong political associations for the French – well, in a certain form. You may have heard of the “Yellow Vests” (called Gilets Jaunes here in France). The Gilets Jaunes adopted their “uniform”, the kind of yellow vest you use to stay visible on the road at night, because it’s easy to find and accessible to just about any budget. They’re part of a movement that’s reacting against what they see as unreasonable taxes and price hikes on various things, from gas bills, to groceries. Within the movement, there are some variations – some people want the government to help the poor and the working class, while others just want to watch the world burn. With that in mind, the Yellow Vests can mean different things to different people, but I don’t think yellow reflective vests will go back to being a completely neutral garment for a long time!
On a more fun note, the color pink in France is often associated with the sexual or the sentimental. You might remember from the list of expressions that le téléphone rose is a sex line, and un roman/une série à l’eau de rose means a sappy, sentimental novel or TV series (you can use à l’eau de rose to describe just about anything that’s overly sentimental, by the way).
What colors do French people like?
Everyone is different, and there are no hard and fast rules in France about what colors you should and shouldn’t wear. Still, when it comes to what’s generally deemed to be fashionable in terms of things like interior design and fashion, the French tend to prefer a more muted look, especially Parisians. For example, a typical Parisian apartment might have a parquet floor (especially if it’s an old building), white walls with some artwork or shelves, and maybe a few colorful accents.
As for clothing, while some particular styles, like street, ethnic, or glam, are an exception, most traditional French people opt for subtlety and well-made, timeless pieces or fashionable cuts in more neutral colors (black, denim, etc.). That said, the French do admire people with a unique sense of style that works, even if they might not choose to copy said style.
According to a recent survey, French people’s favorite color is blue. You might think this has something to do with bleu, blanc,, rouge, or Les Bleus, but in fact, blue is a favorite color throughout the world. So it seems that when it comes to colors, the French don’t usually go crazy…and they don’t constantly voir la vie en rose!
Speaking of which, let’s end with the most famous color-related song in French, Edith Piaf’s magnificent La Vie en Rose, which every article about French colors should include!
What about you? Quelle est ta couleur préférée ? Et vois-tu la vie en rose ?