The Paradox of Black and White

English is not the easiest language to learn, because it isn’t very logical. I can remember how frustrated my youngest child was with her first grade spelling, trying to understand how ‘going’ and ‘doing’ were spelt as if they rhymed, when they did nothing of the sort. But it isn’t just our spelling and pronunciation that can be a bugbear; our idioms can also be a conundrum for both writers and speakers.

Look at how the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ can have a multitude of meaning. We can’t just assume black symbolises bad, and that white stands for good.

Black had traditionally been seen as unlucky, sinister, or downright evil. There is a large number of sayings, similes, and idioms that use black in this sense: to be listed in someone’s black books, the black sheep of the family, black hats (particularly in Westerns), to blackball a candidate, to be black-hearted, to be in a black mood, to give a black look, to be blacklisted, to have a black mark against your name, the black arts, unlucky to have a black cat cross your path, black magic (as opposed to white magic), to blacken someone’s name, blackmail…  I’ll stop now, because I am sure you have the idea. And yet, to be in the black has the positive connotation of having money in the bank and not being in debt.

White is generally use to represent innocence and purity: as pure/white as the driven snow, white as a lily, white as a swan (Australian swans are black), fair skin is aristocratic, as mild as milk, brides wearing white to their weddings, little white lies, wearing white to your baptism, the white glove test for cleanliness, and so on and so forth. However, white seems to have more negative connotations than black has positive ones. White lips are a sign of pain or sadness – such as pale with suffering, or of anger – think of a white-hot fury. White skin can be pasty. If you are frightened, you are lily-livered and may need to be handed a white feather to shame you for your cowardice. You surrender by waving a white flag.

shadow cat

So, as you can see, the use of black or white in a metaphor isn’t black and white, and has something of a chequered history. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) If you are using black or white in your prose, you have to make sure that your audience knows exactly what your trying to say by using them. For example: “Her horse was as black and as gentle as the night, and as beautiful as the stars therein.”   From the deliberate use of the word ‘gentle’ you can surmise this steed isn’t a black charger snorting brimstone. But if ‘gentle’ had been left out, you might be uncertain of the nature of the black horse. A milk-white horse might not need the word ‘gentle’, because – as previously noted – as milk is generally associated with mildness. So if you have a wicked white steed, you need to make that clear from the start.

So, as you can see, English can be confusing for those who have grown up speaking it. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people trying to learn it as a second language.

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2 Comments

Filed under Analogy, Language, Love of words, Metaphors, Writing Style

2 responses to “The Paradox of Black and White

  1. I’m beginning to come to that conclusion after a few years of (sporadically) learning Japanese. SUDDENLY all the quirks of English stick out. Asides from the utterly unpredictable pronunciation to the bizarre exceptions to a welter of wonky rules – even *those* being inconsistent!
    I pity those learning it, I really do.

    Pity me too. Japanese is beautiful but insane, especially once you start on kanji!

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