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Off color?

中国日报网 2013-04-19 10:53


Reader question:

Please explain “off color” as in: That joke was off color.

My comments:

Off color means literally OFF the normal Color.

If a piece of cloth is washed again and again, its color may wear off, so it looks off color, i.e. pale and faint looking.

Similarly if a person is ill, the color on their face changes, from the normal red and ruddy to, say, pale and bloodless. Or colorless, as people sometimes say. In other words, off color.

If a joke is described as off color, on the other hand, it often means that it’s a rude joke, a joke that’s embarrassing to hear.

Why is a rude joke described as “off color”, then?


Yes, presumably the joke is so bad that it makes the listener go pale in the face. George Bernard Shaw wrote in one of his plays that some of his fellow countrymen’s language is so rough, rude and crude (coarse and uneducated) that they’d make a sailor blush whenever they speak.

That’s exaggerating things quite a bit, for sure, but we get the point. When a sailor blushes (if sailors ever blush over anything at all, rude jokes included) they go off color – the normal color on their face turns reddish.

In short, an off-color joke is one that makes the listener go hot red in the face or green, white or pale, either out of embarrassment, distain, astonishment or anger.

That type of joke, of course, is inappropriate.

We also hear of off color remarks, comments, stories and the like. They’re all words that can be rude, or insensitive, or distasteful, embarrassing, unkind, offensive, out of place, intolerable, wrong.

Or all of those at once.

Alright, here are media examples:

1. Gov. Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd, are swinging back at David Letterman after the talk-show host made the Alaska governor and her family the focus of a series of off-color jokes.

After two days of back and forth between Alaska’s first family and the late-night talk show host, the Palins today refused Letterman's invitation to come on his show after he offered an apology for comments Letterman made earlier in the week about the governor and her daughter.

“The Palins have no intention of providing a ratings boost for David Letterman by appearing on his show. Plus, it would be wise to keep Willow away from David Letterman,” PalinPAC spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton said today.

Letterman’s “Top 10” list Tuesday night focused on Palin’s recent trip to New York, and included several cracks: “Bought makeup from Bloomingdale’s to update her ‘slutty flight attendant’ look,” Letterman said.

But it was a line in Letterman’s monologue that set off a firestorm: “One awkward moment for Sarah Palin at the Yankee game, during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.”

Palin was in New York with her 14-year-old daughter, Willow.

The line prompted an angry response from the Palins. In a statement posted on Facebook and distributed to the press Tuesday, the governor said:

“Concerning Letterman’s comments about my young daughter (and I doubt he’d ever dare make such comments about anyone else’s daughter): ‘Laughter incited by sexually-perverted comments made by a 62-year-old male celebrity aimed at a 14-year-old girl is not only disgusting, but it reminds us some Hollywood/N.Y. entertainers have a long way to go in understanding what the rest of America understands – that acceptance of inappropriate sexual comments about an underage girl, who could be anyone's daughter, contributes to the atrociously high rate of sexual exploitation of minors by older men who use and abuse others.’ ”

- Palin Slams Letterman’s ‘Sexually Perverted’ Joke, ABCNews.com, June 11, 2009.

2. Though unlikely to be popular with the more senior members of the Junior League of Jackson, Miss., the warm, deftly acted drama “The Help” (Disney) seems destined to win hearts in many other quarters.

That’s because writer-director Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel uses vivid characterizations to bring the Civil Rights-era struggle for human dignity alive.

A harsh scatological plot development, however, marks the film as off-limits for younger viewers – who might otherwise benefit from its generally uplifting story – and will even be off-putting for many adults.

Fresh from her studies at Ole Miss, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) returns home to Jackson in the early 1960s with her head full of rebellious notions. Instead of finding herself a husband, as her good-hearted but traditionally minded mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney), would prefer, Skeeter wants to be a journalist.

As for the wildly racist thinking that prevails among her privileged peers – personified most viciously by Junior League leader Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) – Skeeter has no patience for it. Neglected by Charlotte, Skeeter was nurtured instead by her family’s black housemaid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson in a brief but wonderful performance), for whom Skeeter retains a deep affection.

Securing a job as the household hints columnist for a local paper, Skeeter turns to another servant, Aibileen (Viola Davis), for advice on the subject. But Aibileen’s help with cleaning tips soon becomes a pretext for Skeeter’s secret and potentially dangerous scheme to write a book documenting the lives of Jackson’s African-American domestics.

Though initially reluctant to cooperate, Aibileen decides to take the risk based on a sermon she hears in church. Eventually Skeeter also manages to win the confidence of Aibileen’s sassy best friend Minnie (Octavia Spencer), whose anecdotes include the off-color tale of how she took revenge on Hilly for firing her.

Since Hilly is leading a crusade to establish separate bathrooms for the city’s maids, so they won’t spread disease to the white population by using their employers’ facilities, Minnie’s manner of wreaking vengeance is apt. But, as portrayed in a fairly lengthy scene, and as repeatedly referred back to, the incident is also profoundly distasteful.

The dynamic created by Skeeter’s perkiness, Aibileen’s mournful warmth and Minnie’s irrepressible sauciness keeps the pace unflagging while the proceedings are further enriched by supporting performances from Jessica Chastain as a kooky but kindly social outcast and Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s Alzheimer’s-beset, but still spirited mom.

Dramatizing the stupidity of prejudice and the expansive possibilities open to those who overcome it, “The Help” is a richly humanistic tale mature viewers will welcome.

- The Help, CatholicNews.com, August 24, 2011.

3. The 85th Academy Awards opened Sunday with Captain James Kirk appearing via videolink from the Starship Enterprise, and closed with First Lady Michelle Obama appearing live from the White House.

In between, it survived a raft of sometimes off-color jokes by Seth MacFarlane in his first appearance as an Oscar emcee -- delighting fans of the “Family Guy” creator while infuriating more than a few detractors.

Fifty-seven percent of those who took part in an instant online poll on TVline.com rated MacFarlane's opening monologue “above average” or even “awesome” at the outset of a musically-themed Oscar evening.

But politically incorrect references to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the accents of Spanish-speaking actors and women’s breasts failed to impress many viewers of the global telecast.

“Star Trek” star William Shatner, in the role of Captain Kirk, dropped in from the 23rd century to warn MacFarlane he was doomed to be the “worst Oscars host ever,” warning him of all the mistakes he would make.

The rambling monologue veered into frat house humor with “We Saw Your Boobs,” a 1930s song-and-dance number with MacFarlane name-checking actresses – many in the audience – who’ve appeared nude on screen in their careers.

- Oscars survive Seth MacFarlane's emcee debut, Agence France-Presse, February 25, 2013.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



Tighter ship?

Jumped the shark?

Against all odds

If you play your cards right

Tried and true

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)



Time to connect the dots


Tried and true


If you play your cards right


Against all odds


Jumped the shark?


Tighter ship?

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