Colors in Russian (and many Shades of Meaning)

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Hi there! Today I decided to write a post about colors in Russian. Trust me when I say that this may sound like a simple topic, but there are many hidden pitfalls.

Now, clearly I can’t discuss with you all the colors in Russian nor can I go through the whole Pantone catalog, so I’ll mention those that are most frequently used, the words that give trouble to us Russian learners and the colors that Russians use with a different meaning.

And it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t add some grammar tips and fun facts about colors in Russian and their many shades.

At the end of the post, you can download the colors in Russian PDF chart.

Off we go!

Colors in russian

The chart of Russian colors

If you just want to know the name of the colors in Russian and don’t feel like finding out their hidden meanings, here is a very straightforward chart of the Russian colors.

COLOR IN ENGLISHCOLOR IN RUSSIAN
BlackЧёрный
WhiteБелый
RedКрасный
BlueСиний
Light blueГолубой
GreenЗелёный
OrangeОранжевый
YellowЖёлтый
PurpleФиолетовый
GrayСерый
PinkРозовый
BrownКоричневый

The word 'color' in Russian

Let's start from the very beginning: 'color' in Russian is 'цвет' and it's a problematic word that even Russians use with caution. Why? I'll demonstrate with a table.

CASECOLOR singularCOLOR
plural
FLOWER singularFLOWER
plural
NominativeЦветЦветаЦветокЦветы
AccusativeЦветЦветаЦветокЦветы
DativeЦветуЦветамЦветкуЦветам
GenitiveЦветаЦветовЦветкаЦветов
InstrumentalЦветомЦветамиЦветкомЦветами
PrepositionalЦветеЦветахЦветкеЦветах

The nominative plural of the words 'flower' (цветок) and 'color' are very similar, and they become identical when declined for case.

So what happens? You never really know whether flowers or colors are being spoken about.

Thankfully, there are several tricks for avoiding this annoying problem when talking about colors in Russian:

1) Russians almost always use the word 'color' in the singular.

If somebody says: 'У меня дома много цветов,' 99 times out of 100 they mean that they have a house full of flowers.

To say that they have a colorful house, Russians would usually go for: 'У меня дома много цвета', which literally translates to 'much color.'

This trick works well for Russians, but foreigners often mispronounce 'цвет' as 'свет' (light), causing our house to become bright rather than colorful. Be careful with this one!

2) They use synonyms.

Native speakers tend to avoid using 'color' in Russian and choose words with a similar meaning instead:

  • Краска / краски: means 'paint,' 'tint' or 'tempera,' but the plural is used to indicate 'colors.'
  • Тон / тона: like 'tone' in English (esp. pastels = пастельные тона).
  • Оттенок / оттенки: means 'shade,' as in 50 оттенков серого (50 shades of grey).
  • Палитра: means 'palette,' and the phrase 'богатая палитра' (rich palette) is used to mean 'colorful.'

3) They use adjectives.

That's right! As the word 'color' in Russian is a real pain in the a… neck, why wouldn't you just replace it with an adjective?

But be careful: 'цветной' means 'in color' (like 'to print in color'); for 'colored,' you would say 'разноцветный.'

You could also say 'аляпистый' if you're trying to describe something as a 'color mess'.

Colors in Russian

Ok, now we can move on and start tackling the colors in Russian.

Please note that colors in Russian are all adjectives, but I’m not going to give you all three genders here.

Let's start with the two noncolors.

Black and white

White in Russian is “белый” – it is the sum of all colors.

Black, on the contrary, is the absence of colors and in Russian it is “чёрный.”

That's it.

In English you can watch a black-and-white film or look at a black-and-white photograph. However, the association of the two in Russian is not “чёрное и белое”, but “чёрно-белое.”

The same applies for all other color combinations in Russian: the first color takes the suffix “o” then you add the hyphen and eventually join the second color.

These two noncolors are used in such words as 'Белоснежка' (Snow White) or 'белоручка' (white hand – a person who doesn't want to do heavy work that requires getting their hands dirty).

Also, when you get old, in Russian your hair doesn't turn “white” or “gray,” but “седые” (hair is plural – волосы).

Red

When you think of Russia, red – “красный” – is one of the first things that come to mind.

Everyone knows the Red Square in Moscow. However, only few know that it was actually named after its beauty. In fact, in those days, the adjective “красный” did not mean “red”, but “beautiful” (today “красивый”).

And I’ll prove it to you.

Do you know what's the Russian for “splendid” or “wonderful”? 'Прекрасный,' that is 'красный' + the emphasizing prefix 'пре.'

Scarlet red – 'алый' – is really appreciated in Russia. You can find it in the Scarlet Sails festival (Алые паруса) in St. Petersburg, in the homonym supermarket chain and in the widely known song by Alla Pugacheva “A million scarlet roses” (Миллион алых роз).

colors in russian red

Blue and light blue

Let's get started with two other colors in Russian: синий (blue) and голубой (light blue).

Honestly, there's not so much to say about blue. First, just remember that it is a soft N adjective.

Second, in Russian a person can be called “синий.” You may know that in English to feel “blue” means to be “sad.'

Well, forget about it! In Russian, if someone is “blue” it means that he/she is very drunk.

Light blue is a bit more problematic because it refers not only to the shade of blue but is also a rude and colloquial way to refer to a homosexual man.

In general, Russians tend not to use “голубой.” They often prefer saying “небесно-голубой” (cerulean or sky-blue), which is how the “cerulean” sweater of Miranda’s iconic monologue in The Devil Wears Prada was translated into Russian.

At times, the adjective is replaced by the more elegant and chic “лазурный,” which recalls the French Côte d’Azur—Лазурный берег in Russian.

Green

Green in Russian is “зелёный.”

Since this color in Russian has no other meanings, I want to introduce you to the зелёнка (in English Brilliant Green): an antiseptic that is used in Russia to heal virtually any cuts, wounds, bruises and so on.

Not only is it very green, but it sticks to your skin for days or even months.

Also the word “зелень” comes from 'green' – it indicates vegetation, cooking herbs and is also a slang word used in the '90s to call money (which is weird because rubles are not green).

My favorite shade of green (or blue) is turquoise, in Russian 'бирюзовый.'

This one I love. Light green in Russian is often called 'салатовый' (salad green) because it is actually the color of salad leaves.

Orange and yellow

Orange in Russian is “оранжевый” and I know what’s going on in your head. No, the fruit is called “апельсин.”

Yellow in Russian is 'жёлтый.'

Unless you want to leave a person forever, in Russia you should NEVER give away yellow flowers because they are 'к расставанию,' that is a symbol of separation.

Just like in American English, the term 'жёлтая пресса' (yellow press) is used in Russia for newspapers that present little legitimate news and gossip.

Purple (or violet) and gray

Purple and violet in Russian are both “фиолетовый,” but only the colors because the flower is called “фиалка.”

In Russian, if you say 'мне фиолетово' (it’s purple to me) or even 'мне ультрафиолетово' (it’s ultraviolet to me) that means that you don’t care.

Gray in Russian is 'серый.'

If you refer to someone as a “серая мышь” you want to convey that they are sloppy, dull, in short, a gray mouse just like al the others.

Pink (or rose) and brown

These are the last two colors in Russian left from my list.

Pink and rose are both “розовый.”

Just like in English, when someone 'в розовых очках' (wears rose-colored glasses) or 'смотрит через розовые очки' (looks through pink glasses) means that they are optimistic and see only the positive side of things. However, in Russia this is not necessarily a good thing and this idiom is often used to blame people.

Brown is “коричневый.” But be careful: in Russia, eyes are not 'коричневые', but 'карие!'

Verbs of colors in Russian

This may surprise you, but in Russian (and in many other languages) colors form intransitive verbs that are used when someone or something 'turns a color.' Let me show you.

Shy people find it difficult to accept compliments, when they receive one they краснеют (краснеть – покраснеть = to blush).

Even if I'm trying my very bets, the leaves of all my houseplants желтеют (желтеть – пожелтеть = turn yellow).

If you spend too much time in the water, your lips синеют (синеть – посинеть = turn blue).

And what happens to your face when you feel sick? Белеет? No! Бледнеет.

The verbs белеть – побелеть mean “to shew white” as in the famous poem The Sail by Lermontov “Белеет парус одинокий…”.

For the human body, you should use бледнеть – побледнеть = to turn pale.

Speaking of “white”, teeth (and not only) whitening is 'отбеливание.'

… ish in Russian colors

What happens when you can't define a color clearly?

In English, you would add the suffix '-ish,' in Russian you have another particle that comes handy in these situations – '-оват-'.

  • Yellowish = жёлтоватый.
  • Greenish = зелёноватый.
  • Reddish = Красноватый!
  • Bluish = синеватый (here is an “e” because you can't write 'o' after a soft N).

And so on…

Tones, tints and shades of colors in Russian

We’re almost done, I swear!

Every color has different shades, tints and tone: electric blue, dark yellow, neon green and light pink just to name a few.

In Russian you can express these nuances with the following adjectives.

Light and dark

The adjective 'light' is 'светлый' in Russian, while 'dark' is 'тёмный', but you can’t just throw them in a sentence like that.

Just like in “color mixing” we have seen above, you have to use the 'o + hyphen' structure, for example light pink becomes 'светло-розовый' and dark green 'тёмно-зелёный.'

Bright and soft

In Russian, a bright color is “яркий“, while soft, dull colors are “приглушённые.”

Fort the first adjective you have to follow the 'o + hyphen' rule, while the second can also stand alone.

Another way to say “very bright” is “кричащий” (screaming)

Others

Which are also the funniest.

“Neon” colors in Russian are “неоновые.”

A color that in English is just “electric”, in Russian it’s much more – “ядерный“, that is “nuclear“.

Acid colors remain so also in Russian: “кислотные.”

All of these adjectives can be both stand-alone, or with “o + hyphen.”

Final tip!

In Russia children are tought a popular nursery rhyme, which helps them to memorize the colors of the rainbow by linking the first letter of each word to the initial of the color: Каждый Охотник Желает Знать, Где Сидит Фазан (Every hunter wants to know where is the pheasant).

If it works for them I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for you!

Colors in Russian PDF cheat sheet

As I promised at the beginning, here you can download the colors in Russian PDF cheat sheet.

Enter your name, your email and click on the button! The download link will appear below.

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