Friday, August 14, 2009

What is the Color of My Love's True Hair?

Q: What happened when the ship full of red paint collided with the ship full of blue paint?

A: All the sailors were marooned.

Colors have remarkably strong and varied associations.

For example, Reds in American English slang could be barbiturate pills, but more often they're Communists (as, more or less, are the similarly colored pinkos). Greens might be part of a salad, or they might be ecology-minded people; and in adjectival form a "green" person might (depending on context) be inexperienced, ill, or envious.

Yellow is associated with cowardice -- and formerly was used to describe Asian skin colors. Someone who is red (as opposed to being "a Red") might be embarrassed or sunburned or (in old-fashioned fiction) an American Indian. Skin colors span an amazing variety of hues; it's unfortunate that the language available to talk about that range of colors is inextricably entangled in political issues, because I'd love to have more precise words for all those colors. White, for instance, is used to describe a wide range of pinkish skin tones, although certain nationalities and ethnicities with pinkish skin used to be excluded from that term. Black similarly applies to a wide range of brown and dark skins, though recently I've been hearing "brown" to refer to an even wider range of darker-than-"white" skin colors. And then there's the term "people of color" -- which is very different in connotation from the term "colored people." (And colored has different connotations in the US from those it has in, for example, South Africa.)

Adding to the political issues about skin color is the fact that -- in Western European cultures, at any rate -- white has long been the color of purity and goodness, while black has long been associated with evil. (Interestingly, pink and brown have no such connotations.) Though black can also refer to the color of a caucasian's face when they're angry. And it has positive connotations in financial circles, where it's better to be in the black than in the red.

Purple was once the color of royalty, though it's also the color of an enraged caucasian face. Blue means sad. Orange and green don't necessarily seem opposed until you learn that they're the colors of the Catholics and the Protestants in Ulster. Colors on flags have enormous symbolic value, as do school colors and even holiday colors -- you can tell what time of year it is in any American shopping center by whether the decorations are black-and-orange, red-and-green, or red-white-and-blue.

Color names are also amazingly varied. In one edition of her comic book "Castle Waiting: The Curse of Brambly Hedge", Linda Medley included a long list of color names, most of which you wouldn't find in a box of Crayolas. (Though to be fair, Crayola has vastly expanded their color names in recent years. Their Web page includes some interesting information on the politics of color names: the well-known change from their Flesh color to Peach, for example, and the change from Indian Red even though that name originally had nothing to do with American Indians.) I've adapted that list (with modifications) here, though this is by no means exhaustive:

alizarin, amber, amethyst, apple green, apricot, aquamarine, aubergine, auburn, avocado, azure, banana, barium-yellow, bark, basalt, battleship-gray, bay, beige, bisque, bittersweet, black, blue, blush, bone, brick red, bronze, brown, buff, burgundy, burnt orange, burnt sienna, burnt umber, butternut, butter, cadet blue, camel, canary, cardinal, carmine, carnation, carnelian, cerise, cerulean, chalk, champagne, charcoal, chartreuse, cherry, chestnut, chocolate, cinnabar, cinnamon, citrine, citron, cobalt, concrete, copper, coral, cornflower, cranberry, cream, crimson, cyan, daffodil, damson, dandelion, dove grey, dun, ebony, ecru, eggplant, eggshell, emerald, evergreen, fawn, flamingo, flax, flint, fuchsia, garnet, gentian, geranium, ginger, gold, goldenrod, granite, grape, green, grey, gunmetal, hazel, heather, heliotrope, henna, honey, incarnadine, indigo, ivory, jade, jet, jonquil, khaki, kumquat, lavender, lemon, lilac, lime, linen, liver, lutein, madder, magenta, mahogany, maize, malachite, mango, maple, marble, marigold, maroon, mauve, melon, moss, mulberry, mustard, narcissus, nasturtium, nutmeg, oak, obsidian, ochre, olive, orange, orchid, peach, periwinkle, pink, plum, poppy, primrose, puce, pumpkin, putty, quince, raisin, raspberry, raven, raw sienna, raw umber, red, reseda, roan, rose, ruby, russet, rust, sable, saffron, sage, salmon, sand, sandalwood, sanguine, sapphire, scarlet, sepia, shale, sienna, silver, slate, soapstone, steel, tan, tangerine, taupe, tawny, teal, thistle, topaz, turquoise, ultramarine, umber, verdant, verdigris, vermillion, violet, viridian, walnut, watermelon, wheat, wine, wisteria, white, woad, xanthite, yam, yellow, zinc oxide.

And then there are modifiers applied to basic colors. For example, there are _____ greens: apple, bottle, forest, hunter, jungle, kelly, kendal, kiwi, leaf, ocean, pea, pine, quetzal, sage, sea, spring. And _____ blues: electric, ice, iron, midnight, navy, nigrosin (also nigrosin-violet), prussian, royal, steel, sky. And so on.

There are a remarkable number of names for different kinds of off-white or light grey -- for dozens more than the above, visit any paint store. (Just kidding!)

An awful lot of plant names and food names and gem names turn into color names: the color of such a thing is named after the thing, though arguably some of the items in the above list take that approach too far (I don't know if most people would consider "concrete" a valid color name). Even the color orange seems to be derived from the plant name, not the other way around; and I believe the same is true of the color pink, named after the flower.

I recently looked through a Lands' End catalog. Several item descriptions contained words like "Seven colors left." I couldn't figure out why they would mention how many colors were remaining. It made it sound like they were running low on stock of most of their clothing. And then it hit me: "Seven colors left" meant "See the seven color swatches shown to the left of this text."

A Side Note -

As I reread this piece I got stuck on the word gray. Or is it grey?

In the third grade I was entered in a spelling bee. During one of the earlier rounds, I was asked to give the spelling of the word "gray." The image of a gray coloring crayon quickly came to mind. On its side, as is customary of most crayons, the crayon's color was written. The spelling I saw on that imagined crayon (which most certainly came from an actual experience in my past) was g-r-e-y. So, that is how I answered the question.

When I was told my spelling was incorrect, I returned to my chair and tried to fight back tears (I really wanted to win, and didn't feel I deserved to be leaving the event so quickly). Just minutes after I had sat down, one of the teachers (Thank you Mrs. Rosenberg!) in the room spoke up and said that she believed my spelling of the word gray was not incorrect. After some research (I believe we were in the school library, so it didn't take long), it was decided that my spelling of the word was acceptable, and I was allowed to continue participating. I eventually ended up winning the spelling bee — something I was very proud of at the time — but that is neither here nor there.

The point of this story is, there are two acceptable spellings of the word gray. Prior to today I was under the assumption that "gray" was simply the more popular of the pair, but after two quick Google searches for "gray" and "grey," I realized the difference seems to be very slight (on the Web, at least).

So what, then, is the difference between the two spellings? According to Google Answers, the two words have almost the same meaning in all cases, and g-r-a-y is simply an American derivation of the original spelling g-r-e-y. According references I found on the web the difference can be chalked up to the same happenstances that led to organize/organise and judgement/judgment. Apparently e.e. cummings is partly to blame as well. However, among the several hypotheses for why gray and grey exist, I believe the following to be the best:

Gray is a color.

Grey is a *colour*.

So next time you're faced with the choice of spelling the word "gray," feel free to go with whatever spelling best suits you at the time. I think I'll continue to use g-r-e-y, just because it's been so lucky for me in the past.


  1. Well, I didn't win one classroom spelling bee because of the word "develop". I put an "e" on it, which was silly of me since I really did know how to spell the word. I guess then, as now, I was just careless. Some things never change.

  2. " the color of your true love's hair; Her hair is colored black. Her lips, they are so wondrous fair...they are fair, they are so wondrous fair."