Words & Stuff

KKK: Black is the Color of My Love's True Hair

(21 May 2000)

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 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.

Lavender has become associated with homosexuality, as are pink triangles and black triangles and a certain set of colors laid out as rainbow stripes. 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 of course 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.

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 for the first time. Several items said things like "Seven colors left." I couldn't figure out why they would mention how many colors were remaining—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."


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>