The Metaphorical Meanings of the Color Term Black

Hausarbeit, 2012

15 Seiten, Note: 3,0


Table of Contents

1 Abstract

2 Introduction to the effect of colors

3 Associations with Black
3.1 Anthithesis of black and white
3.2 Negative connotations
3.3 Positive connotations

4 Dictionary entries of black

5 Comparison with corpus
5.1 Description of methodology
5.2 Corpus-based research

6 Critical discussion of results

7 Conclusion


1 Abstract

This paper is to demonstrate the varied metaphorical meaning of the color term black. Despite the fact that colors play an important role in everyday life and occur everywhere, they do not receive much attention. Therefore, using the example of black the author’s intention is to illustrate the importance of a color and the correlations people unconsciously make. First of all, with the help of some literature and common phrases in society, positive and negative associations of black are collected. Afterwards the grouped characteristic significances of black are compared to two dictionaries, namely the Oxford English Dictionary and the Longman English Dictionary to see if there is a difference between the symbolism of black and its original denotation. Following the metaphorical meanings of black are collocated by means of The Corpus of Contemporary American English to analyze its actual occurrences in language use. Concluding, black has a wide range of meanings, but is predominantly combined with a negative connotation. Some associations only exist in society or special literature, because the transfer to sorrow or death cannot be found in a dictionary or corpus. This is because dictionaries and the corpus cover the general and literal linguistic usage of black and not its entire symbolism, which arose over a period of years and does not explicitly contain the word black.

2 Introduction to the effect of colors

„Colors are not only experienced with our heart and our emotions,

but also our mind“ (qtd. in Vollmar 2011: 7), Liane Collot d´Herbois once stated. Even though colors are anywhere, people do not pay much attention to them. However, something unconsciously happens to us, because colors have an effect on a person. They express feelings and create a certain atmosphere (see Vollmar 2011: 7). Every color nuance features its own resonance and people automatically associate something with it. The way a color affects us is defined through its actual context and long lasting connected experiences with it (see Heller 2011: 13). Over hundreds of years a characteristic universal symbolic meaning of every color arose (see Heller 2011: 14). Thus, it should be changed that just a few humans are aware of a color’s effects even though they interact with them every day.

In the following paper, we will concentrate on the color term black only. "Black is real sensation, even if it is produced by entire absence of light. The sensation of black is distinctly different from the lack of all sensations" (Helmholtz 1924: 131). The absorption of all the light in the color spectrum makes black a very special color, because it expresses the primordial void, darkness and the absence of stimulation to the retina (see Dimmick 1929: 60). Therefore, black, like any other color, is more than just a color term; it carries a metaphorical meaning and conveys a certain feeling. On the following pages, the correlations with black, its varieties, and a color’s importance relating to one’s feelings will be outlined.

3 Associations with Black

3.1 Antithesis of black and white

From the beginning of human history a huge importance has been attributed to black and white. The two colors embody the principles of light and darkness, good and bad, life and death. One could state they are the greatest antitheses in our world (see Vollmar 2011: 233). Whereas white represents words with positive connotations, black as an achromatic color is predominantly associated with negativity. This is probably because black refers to the Germanic adjective “swarz”, which means dark, dirty or dense fog (see Vollmar 2011: 234). Additionally, black is able to convert any positive symbolism of a color into its opposite (see Heller 2011: 89). In the following, the author will try to cover a wide range of correlations relating to the color black taken from everyday scenarios by dividing them into their respective negative and positive denotations.[1]

3.2 Negative connotations

The perhaps greatest relevance for the metaphorical meaning of black is the association with death. Death means being absent from life in the same way that black is the absence of light. Light embodies the quality of life itself and the possibility to constantly develop because without sunlight, human, animal or vegetable life would be impossible on earth. Consequentially, black is associated with emptiness and lifelessness. This view is supported by wearing black clothes at a funeral to remember the dead person and at the same time to express one’s mourning.

In addition, pessimism and bad luck are connected with black. When people see a black cat or a black raven, they associate a bad day for themselves with it. Another example of this pessimism is the expression: the future looks black, which means that times are about to get tough. Moreover, black is said to announce a disaster. This is rooted in the demonization of black through patriarchal Christianity. These people tend towards an estrangement of nature and consequentially attributed anything good to the opposite color; white (see Vollmar 2011: 235).

According to this, a black period or another black day means hopelessness. Something has gone totally wrong and it seems unlikely that the situation will get better. Such black days are associated with a sense of loss or disaster, an example of this is October 25, 1929; the date upon which share prices tumbled and left people all over America in dept, which they generally could not afford to pay back during their lifetimes.

Illegal things are also termed with black, e.g. the black market or black money. In this case, black carries connotations of illegal, forbidden things. Usually, work is a respectful activity, but if it is done illegally, it is associated with black. It now becomes obvious that black has negating features. To clarify this: orange-yellow symbolizes being fond of company, however, yellow with black represents lies and selfishness (see Heller 2011: 91). Through a combination with black, the symbolism of every colorful color[2] changes into its opposite.

Additionally there exists a special kind of humor called black humor; jokes about serious subjects, especially death, are connected to this. Furthermore, black comedy is created out of a tragic event or situation. Interesting is also the connection to magic. Black magic, like in Harry Potter, implies horrible, barbarous methods usually with the intention to kill someone. In these movies/books all good people are afraid of its consequences and would only use it in case of an emergency. On the other hand, bad characters use it to assume power. Immediately it becomes clear that the term black corrupts magic.

Likewise, black is also used in the context of being in a bad mood or depression. Hence, if someone is very upset and full of anger, usually it can be described with “she gave (me) a black look.” Further popular expressions are to black out, which describes losing consciousness, and a black sheep, an outcast from a family or from society.

Psychologically, black in a room looks heavy, hard and claustrophobic. It seems angular and depressing. A room appears to look smaller when its walls are colored dark. Consequently, colors affect the effect of size, heaviness and material (see Heller 2011: 108).


[1] The associations of black in chapters 3.2 and 3.3 are taken from Heller 2011: 233-247, Vollmar 2011: 89-111, and from common metaphorical meanings in society. Only very similar wording is marked with references.

[2] Colorful colors include blue, red, green, yellow, orange, purple, brown and grey.

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The Metaphorical Meanings of the Color Term Black
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
692 KB
Es gab nie eine Begründung, weshalb die Arbeit lediglich mit einer 3,0 benotet wurde, da der Dozent bereits die Uni verlassen hatte.
metaphorical, meanings, color, term, black
Arbeit zitieren
Lena Groß (Autor:in), 2012, The Metaphorical Meanings of the Color Term Black, München, GRIN Verlag,


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