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shameless pleading

Color me [adjective]

Yeah? Well, MY trees are blue.

Dear Word Detective: The phrase “color me [insert word]” appears numerous times on your site. I’ve heard it and used it often myself but where, may I ask, does it come from? — Mark.

Sorry about that. I do seem to have used the phrase without explanation quite a few times in my columns. Thanks to the awesome power of The Google, I see that my website boasts one “color me envious,” one “color me cautious,” a “color me psychic,” a somewhat wobbly “color me extremely unconvinced,” and three, count ‘em, three, instances of “color me stupid.” I guess “stupid” wins. But “color me” as a rhetorical device is useful. “Color me cautious,” for instance, seems more vivid, and less dismissive, than the dull “I’m skeptical.” Of course, that “color me extremely unconvinced” is pretty dismissive, just a tad shy of declaring something (in that case, a silly theory about “moolah”) to be “utter hogwash.” But it was.

The common noun “color” first appeared in English in the early 13th century, and the verb “to color” followed in the 14th. “Color” is frequently spelled “colour” in British English, reflecting its Anglo-Norman heritage, but “color” is far more frequent elsewhere. However you choose to spell it, “color” comes ultimately from Latin roots that carried the sense of “covering, concealment.”

The earliest senses of “color” were those related, as you’d expect, to hue, tint, pigment, etc., but almost immediately we also began to employ “color” in various figurative senses, usually regarding appearances, authority or other intangible aspects of society (“This [action] … would at once give the movement the colour of a general revolt,” 1941). One of the more interesting uses of “color” has been to mean “pretext” or “excuse” (“The transfer was only a colour for an advance of money,” 1855). Since the early 18th century, “color” has also been used to mean “features that make something interesting,” as in “local color” or “color commentary” in sports matches.

“Color” as a verb has been used in a variety of senses, most of which involve either literally or metaphorically applying color (either literal or figurative) to something, which brings us to “color me stupid” and similar “color me” or “color him/her/them” phrases. In its most basic sense, “color me” means “consider me” or “regard me as,” often in a jocular sense (“Me — I just left. — Color me gone.” 1963), although it can be used to impart serious emotion as well (“Well, color me stupid, because I didn’t want to believe he was seeing another woman,” T. Macmillan, 1992).

The fact that the internet is apparently awash in people looking for an explanation of “color me” phrases would tend to indicate that the technology, or lack thereof, that underlies the idiom has, sadly, largely dropped from our radar in recent years. I’m talking about coloring books for very young children (kinda like iPads, but made from paper). Children armed with a box of crayons of various colors would be instructed by the books to “color the trees green” or “color the pond blue,” thus learning to recognize the words “tree” and “pond” as well as the colors themselves. A few years of seeing such instructions and you’re ready, decades later when your husband strays, to declare “color me stupid.”

Coloring books also develop hand-eye coordination in young children, and generations of teachers urging their charges to “color inside the lines” of the drawings in coloring books have given us “color inside the lines” as a useful metaphor for “follow the rules.”

The Oxford English Dictionary dates “color me” to 1963 (and cites an unattributed example from that year in a promotion for the US TV comedy “I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster”), but, given the fact that coloring books first became available in the late 1870s, I’d be surprised if the phrase weren’t quite a bit older.

4 comments to Color me [adjective]

  • Judith Baron

    This question woke up a long-dormant memory for me. I’m not surprised that the OED dated “color me” to 1963, since that was the year that singer Kitty Kallen had a big hit with a Kander/Ebb song called “My Coloring Book.” The lyrics to that song are all about color it this, color it that, as in “This is my lonely room. Color it empty now.” I remember the ending of the song as something like “This is the man I depended on. Color him gone.”

    I can’t recall hearing the phrase “color me [blank]” used before that song became popular in the early 60s. Wow. I’m old.

  • Petronella

    Do you remember the hype about seasonal skin-tone matching for clothing and cosmetics, starting in the 70s? I have a feeling the real break-through of the phrase “color me something” follows the success of a book on that subject by Carole Jackson, Color Me Beautiful (1980).
    Petronella.

  • h. s. gudnason

    Thirty years ago I worked for a year in a large bookstore, and often had to divine from their imprecise hints what books customers were looking for.

    At the time, two of the most popular books were Color Me Beautiful, which Petronella mentions in her comment, and Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple. One day a woman came up to the desk and asked if we had Color Me Purple, which left me staring blankly for several seconds before I finally asked if she meant the novel. She did.

  • Kayla

    I’m actually still trying to figure out what ‘Color me purple’ means. I swear I heard it somewhere before, but I’m not sure if it meant anything more than the obvious.

    Urban dictionary has a definition about it meaning ‘guilty’, but I find that entry to be somewhat dubious.

    Anyone know the answer?
    (Because you can color me confused =)

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