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Where Have All the Ordinary Color Names Gone?

Here's a little quiz to test your knowledge of color names. Can you identify where on the spectrum these colors — all of them well documented, some of them brand-specific — are located?

  1. Inch Worm
  2. Dead Spaniard
  3. Isabella
  4. I'm Not Really a Waitress
  5. Synergy

Baffled? Frustrated? Annoyed that color naming nowadays is so arcane and confusing? I sympathize with the first two reactions. But don't be too quick to blame oddly named colors on Kids These Days: two of the names in the quiz date back to the Elizabethan era. (To learn which ones, and to discover all the other color identities, keep reading.) And not only are quirky color names old news, it turns out that they serve a useful function, certainly for marketers wishing to carve out a distinctive niche and also — paradoxically, perhaps — for shoppers.

From a certain perspective, it can seem as though color naming has devolved from straightforward to, well, goofy. Call it the Crayola Illusion. When the first Crayola crayon boxes arrived in stores in 1903, customers had a simple choice: a single assortment containing eight descriptively named crayons — Black, Brown, Orange, Violet, Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow. And so it remained for the next 36 years. Everything changed in 1949, when Crayola brought out a 48-color collection that included in-between hues (Yellow Orange and Orange Yellow; Blue Green and Green Blue), a small garden's worth of flower colors — Thistle, Cornflower, Periwinkle, Orchid — and the soon-to-become controversial Prussian Blue (changed to Midnight Blue in 1958 in response to teachers' requests, says the Crayola website) and Flesh (changed to Peach in 1962, "partially because of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement").

After that, there was no stopping the crayon chemists and color namers. The 64-color box introduced in 1957 included Raw Umber, Burnt Orange, and Mulberry. Fluorescent colors — Wild Watermelon, Magic Mint, Radical Red, and others — joined the collection in the 1970s. And if you buy the 120-color assortment today, you'll be able to wrap your fingers around — for starters — Mango Tango (medium orange), Inch Worm (bright yellow-green), and Jazzberry Jam (medium pinkish-red).

Other industries seem to have gone cuckoo with color names, too. The New York Times recently reported that interior-paint manufacturers are seeking "to distinguish their brands with names that tell a story, summon a memory or evoke an emotion — even a dark one." Which is why your local home-improvement store now carries paint colors called Rejuvenate, Hey There!, Tornado, Metro at 5, and Synergy (bright aqua). The paint companies may have following trends in cosmetic color-naming: A visit to the makeup counter turns up color names as odd and even offputting (if you're in the wrong demographic) as Roach, Asphyxia, and Meet Balls.

Odd, maybe. But new? Hardly.

Take automobile colors, for example. Almost as soon as carmakers expanded beyond Henry Ford's "any color as long as it's black," color namers got creative. In 1936, you could buy a new Cadillac in Thessalon Green, Cannon Smoke, Pomerang Brown, or Nakhoda Blue. In 1970, some Dodge models were available in Panther Pink, Go Mango (orange) and Sublime (a light, bright green); the Plymouth color chart that year included Vitamin C (orange), Sassy Grass Green, and Moulin Rouge (reddish-purple). Also in 1970, Ford went psychedelic with color names like Hulla Blue, Anti-Establish Mint, and Freudian Gilt. (Explore the Auto Color Library to see color charts for other models and years.)

And although the color names of contemporary cosmetics certainly push the boundaries of comprehension (for proof, see the Stupid Nail Polish Names blog), metaphorical color naming is — again — old hat. Revlon introduced vivid red Fatal Apple lipstick and nail polish in 1945, followed by Where's the Fire? in 1950 and — most famously and enduringly — Fire and Ice (another bright red) in 1952.  A rival cosmetics brand, Hazel Bishop, stuck with plain descriptive names like Dark Red. Revlon is still in business; Hazel Bishop disappeared as an independent brand in the early 1960s. Meanwhile, I'm Not Really a Waitress — a shimmery red introduced by OPI in 1999 — is one of the best-selling nail enamels in history.

But here's the real surprise: inventive color naming started long before the 20th century. You've probably heard of magenta, a shade of purplish red. It was developed in a laboratory in 1859 and named not for its chemical components but to honor the Battle of Magenta (a town in Lombardy), which had been fought earlier that year during the second Italian war of independence.

Indeed, the Fashion Color Database — a catalogue of colors from A.D. 600 to 1939 — reveals a long, rich history of fanciful color names. In 1894, a certain pale pink was dubbed Malmaison (literally "bad house"): it had been the name of Napoleon's residence and was later bestowed on a rose variety. Other historical color names are even more mysterious: Lincoln (1883), Cremorne (1872), Fly's Wing (1843), Esterhazy (1822), Laylock (1767). The Elizabethan era produced a bounty of bizarre color names, including Dying Monkey, Mortal Sin, Kiss-Me-Darling, Puke, Goose-turd, Dead Spaniard (pale grayish tan), and Isabella (an ivory hue named for the color of the linen ruff of the Infanta Isabella Eugenia, born in Spain in 1566), Even earlier, the colors used in heraldry were given metaphoric names such as Gules, from French gueules (throats): the red hue was reminiscent of slaughtered animals' bloody necks.

Which brings us to the big question: Why? Why make color choices so complicated and mysterious? Wouldn't we all be better off with descriptive names à la Crayola in 1903 — or, better still, a system of numeric codes?

Well, no, as it turns out. Elizabeth G. Miller and Barbara E. Kahn, professors of marketing at Boston College and the Wharton School, respectively, studied those questions and reported their findings in a 2005 paper, "Shades of Meaning: The Effect of Color and Flavor Names on Consumer Choice." Their conclusion:

Building on Grice's (1975) theory of "conversational implicature," we propose that consumers will react favorably to unusual color or flavor names (e.g., blue haze or Alpine snow) because they expect marketing messages to convey useful information. If the message is not informative or does not conform to expectations, consumers search for the reason for the deviation. The search results in additional (positive) attributions about the product, and, thus, a more favorable response. [Emphasis added.]

"Conversational implicature," the theory developed by linguist Paul Grice, refers to concepts suggested rather than directly expressed by an utterance. What this means in plain English is that consumers — you and I — enjoy solving the puzzle of an ambiguous name. As Miller and Kahn told Brand Strategy Insider in February 2010:

In our research, we found that when a consumer encountered an ambiguous name, s/he stopped and thought about it a little. And given that the information came from a marketer who is likely only to give positive information about the product, the consumer is apt to assume the information embedded in the name implies something positive about the brand. On the margin, this assumption about positive attributes adds value to the product. 

In simplified terms, that "something positive" is a story we tell ourselves. "I'm Not Really a Waitress" is more than a shade of red: it's a character with an interesting past (and future); it's an attitude (sassy, spirited, self-deprecating) and a line of dialogue. "Inch Worm" tells us something about what matters to kids: a close-up view of the natural world, a delight in squishy bright-green ickiness.

Of course, fanciful color names are only part of the story: to create standardized colors, we still need numeric or alphanumeric codes. In the hexadecimal system used by Web programmers, for example, every color can be expressed by a six-character string, from #FFFFFF (pure white) to #000000 (pure black). Yet even "hex" charts include language that can be indirect and even poetic, as demonstrated by this chart of color samples for Web use. The alphanumeric codes appear straightforward, even clinical. But the names seen here to the right — Old Lace, Papaya Whip, Moccasin, Gainsboro, Honeydew, Peru, Firebrick — are as lyrical and metaphorical as anything you'll find in a paint store. Or, for that matter, a box of crayons.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 18th 2011, 6:39 AM
Comment by: Chrissy Lang (Brisbane Australia)
What an excellently- intriguing article - I will be using these concepts with my English classes who are currently studying advertising. Isn't the power of suggestion amazing?
cheers
Monday July 18th 2011, 5:24 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
In the wonderful movie, "Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House," Mrs. Blandings (Myrna Loy) goes around the unfinished house with the painter, giving him the colors she wants. "Now, I want the nursery to be blue," she says, " almost but not quite robins egg blue, but the blue of the sky on a perfect day in June." (Or some such dialogue, I don't remember exactly).

She does this for several rooms while the deadpan painter, fully used to finicky housewives, laconically relays the basics to his assistant: "Blue...pink...green."
Monday July 18th 2011, 6:43 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
@Michael: We're on the same wavelength. When I linked to this column in my blog today, I included that clip from "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House."
http://bit.ly/o3kBbr
Tuesday July 19th 2011, 12:20 AM
Comment by: Katharine S. (Houston, TX)
What a lovely way to start the day-with colors in mind and out of sight, yet within grasp of the imagination. I particularly liked "Dead Spaniard" although "gules" was bit off-putting. I thoroughly enjoyed your article. Thank you.
Tuesday July 19th 2011, 7:26 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (LIVERPOOL & EXETER United Kingdom)
Good informative article Nancy, not consciously really thought about it before but I like some of the new colours anyway and I didn't know that crayons could be obtained in 120 colour sets though I do remember having a 'flesh' colour one. And now they say that ultimately the total number of colours are in the millions, I think I'll stick with the 64 colour set - should be able to remember what they're called!
Mike W, Riyadh
Tuesday July 19th 2011, 6:10 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
What a marvelous spectrum! This type of research deserves special credit.
I knew about VIBGYOR in rainbow and from my chemistry lab work I'm quite familiar with additional few bands of color.
You presented here the entire super super spectrum and their names are fascinating.
Most of the people like me have never heard about those fancy names. But I bet, we have seen the colors somewhere.
I do not know what motivates you to write on this topic, however,the information will enrich our choices and expressions.
Monday August 15th 2011, 6:44 PM
Comment by: Mary M.
This was a delightful article! You did some great research. I have been delving into the world of buttons and jewelry making and have discovered that color names have changed through the centuries even for buttons!
Thursday September 25th, 11:00 AM
Comment by: ax N. (LA)
i like this. i need to learn color words in art

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Color by Number
- 28 Comments
Designating colors with words (and numbers) is a busy industry in English.
"Roy G. Biv" and "Vibgyor" are famous mnemonics for the color spectrum.
How did "red states" and "blue states" come to define the political map?