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What's the Meaning of Color Red?

Updated on December 21, 2016
Santa's red color has commercial roots in food industry
Santa's red color has commercial roots in food industry

Be careful with the power of red

This color of power carries different meanings in different cultures, can be, depending on situation understood as positive, loving or threatening, aggressive, but it never leaves you indifferent.

Colors are never used for a mere aesthetic purpose. They often carry some kind of symbolic message.

Some of them are so strong, they surpass cultural barriers or other limitations. Color red is definitely one of them.

It is closely associated with blood, which, on the other hand, can mean life or life threat. It is a color of hearts on love letters and borders of warning traffic signs.

We can hardly imagine a celebration without red – just think about hearts on Valentine cards, cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving or Santa's clothes.


On the other hand, this warm color causes so strong reactions it easily makes too much of an impact, so experts warn against using it in large quantities.

In many cases, red works much better as an emphasis than leading color. One of the major areas where we should use red is clothing.

If we decide to wear red in the business meeting other attendees can look at us as a threat, but wearing it on a date makes as more attractive.

Several studies (for instance Elliot and Nesta, 2008) show how deep are stereotypes about the color red.

Yes, we can wear red in business, but we should think about it as a loaded weapon. It is typically limited to a tie (so called power-tie) or similar accessory (maybe a phone case). And no, we can't bet on red in the first date.

Women can see a man in a red sweater too pushy and men can understand women in red as 'too easy'. And both genders should be very careful with this color when carrying a few extra pounds.

Be careful – red makes you bigger and unfortunately fatter.

One of many shades of red is called cardinal red
One of many shades of red is called cardinal red

Color of importance

We tend to underline important information with red. We know important dates as 'red-lettered days' and accountants mark business losses with red.

Being in red numbers is never an accomplishment to brag about. Yet in many areas red means prestige (think about sports cars) or extraordinary achievements (belts denoting highest ranks in judo are red).

The tradition of red as a color reserved for important people can be traced back to neolithic when cavemen believed in magic powers of red. It was used in graves and paintings with scenes connected with life – hunting, fertility, dangers. In old Germanic languages word, magic and red have the same root.

Red gems are still believed as amulets against evil powers. For the very same reason, doors in China are so often painted red.

Red was a color of wedding gowns for centuries and is still used at several Mediterranian nations. It is also the color of highest dignitaries in the church.

A study held at Universities in Rochester and Utrecht (2011) clearly showed that a mere sight of red causes short, yet measurable bursts of speed and strength at people exposed to that color. These findings will surely find a way to be used at several situations in the army, sports, medicine and other areas.

A red carpet is not for everybody
A red carpet is not for everybody

Phrases and sayings with word red

Here are a few of the most popular phrases with red in them, sorted alphabetically:

  • red alert - the ultimate, top level of alertness, when an accident, attack or similar kind of nuisance seems inevitable
  • red carpet (often in connection with treatment) - literally a carpet of red color, reserved for very special guests, nobility or stars; a red carpet treatment is an expression for a treatment for a person of very high importance, royal treatment
  • red cent - unimportant, insignificant amount of money (a coin for one cent is made of reddish metal)
  • red day - holiday, non-profit day, a day, when we don't work, on calendars marked as a red-lettered day (all Sundays and holidays)
  • red faced - embarrassed, ashamed
  • red flag - a warning, meant to cause immediate sense of urgency and reaction; also used as a provocation
  • red handed - being caught at something illegal or indecent
  • red hot - very hot; figuratively used as completely new, exciting, exclusive, successful, in very high demand, also controversial
  • red line - situation, where no safe return can be guaranteed, safety limits for speed, fuel etc. at machines are marked with red lines
  • red phone - a communication for extreme situations, named after the special communication protocol (based on telegraph, not telephone) between Washington and Moscow in times of Cold War
  • red pill - expression for the truth as unpleasant and ugly as it is, for instance: take the red pill - accept the reality; the phrase is coming from The Matrix (1999)
  • red ribbon - an award for second place (blue is for winners), also a symbol for drunk driving prevention
  • red tape - figurative expression for excessive regulations, extremely rigid structure and/or especially large set of rules in most cases intended to prevent progress
  • red zone - dangerous or forbidden area, where nobody should stay for long.

Red is often associated with high speed
Red is often associated with high speed

More idioms with the word red

An idiom is a sequence of words which are always used together and describe something that should be not expected from the individual words. Close relatives to idioms are aphorisms and proverbs (both usually longer). Colors are pretty often used in idioms and red is no exception.

We have already named a few of them, only not in full. Catch somebody red-handed is one such example. Apart from already mentioned ones we can name some more:

  • be in red – be in debt
  • be out of the red – be out of debt
  • be like a red rag to a bull – make somebody very angry
  • give a red herring – mislead somebody
  • go beet-red – blush from embarrassment
  • paint the town red – enjoy in excessive partying, often with lots of drinking and dancing
  • red eye – depending on the context cheap whiskey or a late night flight with an arrival in next morning
  • red ticket item – an item of special significance
  • seeing red – be angry
  • show somebody a red card – exclude somebody from somewhere, for instance, dismiss from one's job

How about a few proverbs with the color red?

Cheese and bread make the cheeks red. (German)

Better a red face than a black heart. (Portuguese)

A man with a red nose is not necessary a drunkard, but he will always be called one. (Chinese)

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. (Traditional)

With an addition of shades we add even more values to red

When we pay attention to idioms, we soon realize red is not always simply red. Thanks to numerous tints, tones and shades we can go into further details:

red as a cherry – bright red

red as a beetroot – dark red

red as a rose – intensely red

red as a ruby – deep red

Here is only a friction of named shades of red color
Here is only a friction of named shades of red color | Source

Never ever underestimate the psychological effect of colors

(Especially of red!)

One of the most famous stories about the psychological effect of red on people is about the dresses of FC Liverpool. One of the most successful soccer teams ever played in red jerseys and white shorts for decades before Bill Shankly in 1964 decided to try dressing the team in 'all red'. His words: »We looked like giants and we played like giants.«

They won the game against favored opponent and begun an era of prestigious trophies. All their major trophies (5 European Cups, 7 FA Cups, 8 League Cups, 3 UEFA Cups, 3 European Super Cups) were won in 'all reds'.

Another fine example is a study done in 2005. Scientists checked the winners in sports where the huge burden falls on judges – martial arts at major events. At half of these competitions, fighters wear white or blue and at the other half red or blue. In the group with white and blue the statistics were 50: 50, but in the group with red against blue, the red colored fighters won significant percentage (around 4 percents) more of wins.

So if we want to find a truly short answer on »What red means?« we can condense our answer in: »Winning!«

Do you love red or hate it?

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