Five Color Idioms: White

It can be said that color succeeds in communicating without uttering a word. However, what exactly is communicated is very much culture dependent due to the multitude of symbolic representations associated with colors in any given culture. It makes sense, then, that colors often appear in various language expressions and are used to convey non literal meanings.

Today’s color of choice is white, in what will hopefully become a mini series on idioms and color in the English language.

Check out the following five white color idioms below.
For idioms with the color black, see: Part 2: Five color idioms: black.
And for green, see: Part 3: Five color idioms: green</a/>.

(1) raise (or wave) a white flag

Smiley face
Meaning: to indicate that you have been defeated and you want to give up
Sample Sentence: After we captured them, they had to raise a white flag.
Pop Culture Reference: Pop singer Dido references the symbolism represented in this idiom in her song “White Flag,” singing: “..and I won’t put my hands up and surrender. There will be no white flag above my door…”

(2) white-tie event/affair

Meaning: an event that requires guests to wear formal dress such as men wearing white bow ties with formal evening attire
Sample Sentence: There was a white-tie wedding ceremony last week which I had to attend.
Pop Culture Reference: Band names are known for being creative or including play on words. The pop/electronica band The White Tie Affair chose to name themselves with this idiom.

(3) white elephant

Meaning: a useless, an unwanted possession that often costs money to maintain
Sample Sentence: Your car is a white elephant, as it often breaks down, causing you too much expenditure.
Pop culture reference: As one alternative to the Western Christmas gift exchange tradition of “Secret Santa,” a White Elephant gift exchange includes a group of family, friends, or coworkers each of whom gets one wrapped gift. Staying true to the idiom’s meaning, the gifts are usually inexpensive, humorous, or used items from home, seeking to provide entertainment for those involved rather than value.

(4) white lie

Meaning: a harmless or small lie told to be polite or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings
Sample Sentence: He told a white lie when his father asked where he was going.
Pop Culture Reference: The popular TV series Breaking Bad has gained so many fans across the world that some have decided to craft special beers in honor of the protagonist Walter White who told many white (and perhaps even more unwhite) lies throughout the show. The india white ale beer is a play on words in itself, named Walt’s White Lie.

(5)  white as a sheet

Meaning: pale
Sample Sentence: Jane was as white as a sheet because of the illness she had suffered for months.
Pop Culture Reference: In the poem Song of Myself, in the famous poetry collection Leaves of Grass, the great Walt Whitman writes the line: “The captain on the quarter-deck coldly giving his orders through a countenance white as a sheet…”

This beautifully done graphic by Information is Beautiful illustrates 84 different emotions, ideas, or symbols represented by 10 majorly recognized cultures. Take a look and see if any of the aforementioned English idioms match up with the ideas represented by the color white in Western/American culture.


Militza Petranovic
Militza is a Pedagogy and Research intern at Voxy. She is currently finishing up her master’s degree in Applied Linguistics at Columbia University’s Teachers College and received her bachelor’s degree in Theoretical Linguistics from the University of California – Santa Cruz in 2012. Militza is interested in researching all aspects of how web technology can help facilitate learning, particularly language learning.

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