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Colors in Portuguese Mean Much More Than Colors

If you’re looking to say the colors in Portuguese, you are probably a beginner.

If that’s the case, you’ve come to the right place.

But more advanced students have something to look forward to in this article, too. They will be able to review and hopefully add something new to their knowledge bank.

But keep in mind that colors don’t describe only things — they express sensations and facts as well.

That’s why I have included at the end of the article a few expressions and sayings that include colors.

And of course, if you’re a little bit more advanced and would like to take a look at the expressions that use colors in Portuguese click here.

Let’s Start from the Basic Colors in Portuguese

And that’s how you will hear most Brazilians talking about colors. But you should keep in mind two things:

1) the colors laranja (orange) and rosa (pink) used to be part of a longer expression — cor-de-rosa e cor de laranja. But you’ll hardly ever hear anyone talking about that. They are songs and perhaps poems that resort to the word color of rose, though. And because of this peculiarity, their ending doesn’t change to show gender (but they’re masculine by default).

By the same token, the word “cinza” (gray) doesn’t change according to gender (that is, it’s common for both genders). The “correct” word for gray should be “cinzento” but that’s usually not the first word most people resort to when describing the color of a cloud on the sky.

2) there are simple variations of those colors. Depending on the intensity, you could say it’s a light gray or dark gray, light blue or dark blue etc.

  • Amarelo-claro. Light yellow.
  • Amarelo-escuro.Dark yellow.

Keep your eyes wide open for a caveat about using those “compound colors”.

Talking about Hair Color

Even though I’m giving you the names of the colors here, I suggest you browse some website like Amazon and look for hair dyes (“tintura de cabelo”). If you want to be more specific like Brazilians, you will want to learn the colors that are sold.

You might find it funny that the word for hair colors is in plural. The word for hair in Portuguese is usually plural (“cabelos”). It doesn’t mean you won’t hear people saying it in singular — it’s just that both are common, so I had to favor one.

Note: some people might use the word “moreno” to talk about black hair (“cabelos pretos”). But “moreno” is a word mostly associated with the tone of the skin.

And talking about skin color…

Skin Color in Portuguese

In Brazil, racism runs rife. You should always keep in mind that our society had slavery as an official institution for most of its existence. The deleterious effects of slavery have never been erased.

You can see traces of this in the vocabulary that is used to talk about skin tones that are not white.

You’ll hear moreno, mulato, cor de bombom, cor de chocolate, moreninho, pretinho, escurinho

According to the government, the official name is “negro”. But mostly recently the Black Movement has taken some steps forward and the word “preto” is gaining a different meaning, distinct from its originally racist shade. But as Heloise Costa says in this article [in Portuguese], if you’re white you can stick to the word negro.

According to IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), the five possible skin colors (based on race) are:

  • Amarelo (yellow)
  • Branco (white)
  • Indígena (indigenous)
  • Pardo (something Brazilians struggle to define – it’s not black, and it’s not white. It’s something in between, a concept you’ll understand more when you’re able to read Lilia Schwarcz’s Nem Preto Nem Branco, Muito Pelo Contrário [affiliate link], “Not Black Nor White, Quite on the Contrary; a book I’m dying to see in English)
  • Preto (black)

About the Pardo Brazilians, you can see a somewhat more detailed explanation on the site Black Brazil Today. But to have a true foundation on the matter you need to read Lilia Schwarcz’s works (not only the book I recommend).

Are the Word for Colors Adjectives or Nouns?

They are both.

When they are nouns, they are masculine.

And you don’t usually need to add the word “cor” (color) before it.

  • Acho que azul combina perfeitamente com amarelo. I think blue goes with yellow perfectly.
  • Você vai pintar a parede de amarelo ou preto? Are you going to paint the wall yellow or black?

But when they are adjectives, the word for colors in Portuguese must agree with the nouns and gender and number (that is, if it singular or plural).

  • Dizem que usar calcinha amarela no réveillon traz sorte no ano seguinte.It is said that wearing yellow panties on New Year’s Eve brings money the following year.
  • O vestido roxo não combina com os sapatos vermelhos. The purple dress doesn’t agree with red shoes.
  • As calças rosas caem melhor em você. Acho que você devia usá-las. The pink pants are a more becoming on you. I think you should wear them.

But some words have no gender variation — brown, green, blue, and the originally compound colors pink and orange — though they still go to plural.

  • Um par de meias marrons. A pair of brown socks.
  • Um par de sapatos laranjas. A pair of orange shoes.

O homem tem olhos verdes. A mulher tem olhos azuis. The man has green eyes. The woman has blue eyes.

Compound Colors — an Important Caveat

I said above that you can form compound colors by attaching the words:

  • -claro (light)
  • -escuro (dark)

… to them.

When using compound colors, only the last part of the compound word goes to plural or agrees with the feminine.

  • Cabelos castanho-escuros.
  • Usar uma camisa vermelho-escura.

But that causes a lot of confusion among Brazilians. And, most of the time they will use the wrong version — they default to masculine because colors are masculine by default.

To My Colorblind Friends

I see you, folks.

I’ve met quite a few colorblind men and in fact Rodrigo — our in-house jack of all trades who helps me deliver homework to my students — is colorblind, too.

The word for colorblind in Portuguese is “daltônico,” and color blindness is “daltonismo” (according to John Dalton, the British scientist who first published a study on colorblindness in 1798).

In general, Brazilians are quite oblivious to colorblindness. Even though that’s a condition that prevents people like Rodrigo from driving and makes their lives miserable when they need to go across the street, the government doesn’t recognize that as a disability and thus provides no resources nor support (as shown in this project that has never been approved [PDF, Portuguese])

But there are some websites intent upon providing accessibility to colorblind people (like Daltonicos.com).

Unfortunately, the technology is not readily available to me, but whenever possible I make my texts and articles as accessible as possible, not resorting to unnecessary details that make them shiny and colorful without a clear purpose other than dazzling people.

And if you know how I can make this site more accessible, let me know.

And now, sayings and expressions with colors in Portuguese

Ficar roxo de raiva

In Brazil, when you’re really angry you get purple. Sometimes you get red, too, but usually, people acquire a purple tone.

  • Eu fico roxo de raiva com tanto barulho. I get extremely angry with so much noise.

Ficar vermelho de vergonha

But when you blush you get red. So, no matter the reason that makes you feel embarrassed, you get red.

  • Ela ficou vermelha de vergonha com o que eu disse. Mas não foi minha intenção constrangê-la. She reddened out of shame at what I said. But it wasn’t my intention to embarrass her.

Ter ou ser sangue azul

Blueblood has the same connotation as it has in English — a noble person (from the nobility by birth or, in Brazil, by “buy-in”), someone who has lots of money and/or power.

  • Ele é sangue azul. He’s a blue blood.

Passar a noite em branco

I have a few nurse friends who work night shifts. When they describe the fact that they haven’t shut their eyelids, they say that they have “spent the night in white”.

  • Passei a noite em branco. Estou com muito sono. I have stayed up all night. I’m really sleepy.

Dar ou ter carta branca (para fazer algo)

To give someone the white card comes from the French expression to give someone carte blanche. It has the same connotation of giving someone permission to do as he or she pleases.

  • Você tem carta branca. You have carte blanche.

Estar ou ficar no vermelho

Brazilians tend to associate the color red to an urgent situation. Hence, when you’re in the red it means you are in a dire financial situation.

  • Eu estou no vermelho há dois meses. Não acho que eu possa continuar assim por mais um mês.I’ve been in the red for two months now. I don’t know if I can be like this for one more month.

Dar um sorriso amarelo

This is a common thing in family reunions in Brazil.

Uncle John always asks “how about the girlfriends” even though he knows that his nephew is only ten years old and possibly has other things to worry about other than having a family.

When the person who is inquired doesn’t like it much but wants to save face and not say anything bad back, he just smiles a yellow smile. When you smile like that, you feel embarrassed and somehow don’t want to smile.

  • É um sorriso amarelo. It’s a sheepish smile.

Tudo azul na América do Sul

And the last one is my favorite sentence. It just means “okay” or “everything is fine”.

  • Está tudo azul na América do Sul. Everything is blue in South America.

It’s one of those sentences would use because it rhymes, just like “see you later, alligator”.

Wrapping Up

And as a wrap up, I would like to ask you — what’s your favorite color? Or, what are your favorite colors?

In my case, I do like blue. I like purple, too, but blue is the first word that you will hear come out of my mouth whenever someone asks me this question.

If you have any questions that haven’t been covered in this article, make sure to leave a comment below.

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