It's the time of year when mail order catalogs start to drop through the Lounge Letterbox. One came through the other day with a garment featured on the front, identified as a "fleece-lined hoodie." What immediately grabbed our attention was not the name of the thing, but the color of it: a vivid, pleasing green, reminiscent of the green of a lawn. It's a shade of green that we in the Lounge, after consultation of each others' lexicons, would describe as kelly green. We turned to the product page and discovered that we were a bit off: the color is actually identified as sweet pea.

The avid gardener in us wants to object: the leaves of sweet peas actually have a slightly grayish cast, and not nearly as much saturation as the color of the pictured hoodie. But no matter: there's nothing not to love about sweet peas, and mail-order moguls clearly want to maximize pleasant associations (fragrance, freshness, novelty) with their products, with a view toward making a sale. Kelly green, though it would have been a more accurate description of the garment's color in the minds of many English speakers, is worse than so last season; it's so last century. Sweet pea, for this season anyway, is the new kelly.

Designating colors with words (and, as we'll see in a moment, with numbers) is a busy industry in English, and one that often leaves speakers of other languages and translators reeling. Perhaps in no other subject area is it more evident that English is truly the language that has to have a name for everything, and a name that can change according to the context.

As in most languages, the names of the principal colors in English are old (most of them in fact have roots in Old English) and usually not analyzed into simpler components. Dictionary definitions of principal colors tend to equate them with familiar, real-world objects that serve as reference points: red with blood; green with grass; blue with sky; yellow with lemons, and so forth. Our brains are hard-wired to some degree to latch onto these anchor colors and so it is perhaps no surprise that they present little challenge for translators, and that other languages deal with standard colors (as well as black and white) in a similar fashion, designating them with old, native words and defining them with reference to realia.

Once you step away from the main compass points of the color wheel, however, English gets more interesting, and more grabby. English speakers came into contact fairly early on with names of pigments and dyes through trade and cultural exchange and these words, mostly of foreign origin, have been kicking around in English for many centuries. Perhaps even more so than the principal colors, they have retained their power to evoke specific and vivid images: consider, as a sample, alizarin, bistre, cochineal, henna, indigo, lapis lazuli, ocher, saffron, sepia, umber, vermilion. Add to these the partly-overlapping list of color names with a real-world referent (whether natural or manufactured) such as amber, burgundy, chartreuse, ebony, fuchsia, ivory, lilac, olive, turquoise — all of which are also mainly foreigners with long-time, permanent resident status in English.

From the rich vocabulary available you might get the impression that English speakers are connoisseurs of color, but usage statistics tell a different story. While many "off-chart" color names are in the passive vocabulary of native speakers, many of the names are not sufficiently frequent in usage that people feel confident in some contexts to use them as guideposts for identifying colors to others. Despite the wide range of words to choose from, precise identification of color by a single name is a specialized area of English, a sort of trade jargon among what we might call the colorati: graphic artists, designers, fashionistas, and the like. Outside of this realm, there seems to be an association of precise color identification with femininity and fussiness. This may be a factor in putting people off using these words even if they know them. An unspoken rule says that real men don't say cerulean — they say "kinda light blue."

We compiled a survey of the collocates of a dozen of the most common color words in English (black, blue, brown, gray, green, orange, pink, purple, red, violet, white, yellow) in a large corpus and then, with the help of the VT's VocabGrabber, came up with these interesting stats: the three most common modifiers of these color names in English are pale, bright, and dark. Second-place contenders are deep, brownish, reddish, grayish, greenish, light, vivid, and yellowish. This suggests that, when faced with the task of fixing a color in another person's mind, we prefer to use modifiers attached to standard color names — rather than resort to the rich but somewhat obscure lexicon of minor color names. Describing a nonstandard color seems to be a matter of identifying the nearest hue, fixing the degree of saturation or chroma (pale, bright, dark, deep, light, and vivid do this) and then, if necessary, adjusting the result with reference to another color, usually one not so far away in the prism. Is it so in other languages? Perhaps readers of the Lounge will be able to tell us.

Such an imprecise, informal system for fixing colors does its job in colloquial English but falls far short of the task in the global world that English dominates — so of course other systems have developed to disambiguate color across language lines. One of the earlier and still most successful systems is Pantone, a color numbering system that is probably the most widely used system in branding today. As in so many areas of modern life, the Internet has necessitated new standards of color representation, first with a fairly primitive but standardized set of HTML color names. They can be identified by hexadecimal code in HTML web pages, and also by color name — that is, the English color name.

Color

Hexadecimal

Color

Hexadecimal

Color

Hexadecimal

Color

Hexadecimal

aqua

#00FFFF

gray (grey)

#808080

navy

#000080

silver

#C0C0C0

black

#000000

green

#008000

olive

#808000

teal

#008080

blue

#0000FF

lime

#00FF00

purple

#800080

white

#FFFFFF

fuchsia

#FF00FF

maroon

#800000

red

#FF0000

yellow

#FFFF00

This scheme proved adequate for a short time but has now been supplanted by more sophisticated means of specifying colors for appearance on web pages. One such system supported by most browsers is the X11 system, a sample of which appears here from a Wikipedia page.


HTML name

Hex code
R  G  B

Decimal code
R  G  B

Cornsilk

FF F8 DC

255 248 220

BlanchedAlmond

FF EB CD

255 235 205

Bisque

FF E4 C4

255 228 196

NavajoWhite

FF DE AD

255 222 173

Wheat

F5 DE B3

245 222 179

BurlyWood

DE B8 87

222 184 135

Tan

D2 B4 8C

210 180 140

RosyBrown

BC 8F 8F

188 143 143

SandyBrown

F4 A4 60

244 164  96

Goldenrod

DA A5 20

218 165  32

DarkGoldenrod

B8 86 0B

184 134  11

Peru

CD 85 3F

205 133  63

Chocolate

D2 69 1E

210 105  30

SaddleBrown

8B 45 13

139  69  19

Sienna

A0 52 2D

160  82  45

Brown

A5 2A 2A

165  42  42

Maroon

80 00 00

128   0   0

It is surely a matter of wonder to speakers of other languages that English has devised names for all these colors — indeed, it may be a matter of wonder to native English speakers. The Wikipedia page that this table appears on is translated into nearly three dozen languages on Wikipedia — but on all of those pages, even those of the "chauvinistic" languages that pride themselves on their independence and purity, no one bothers to translate the 150 or so English color names. This is probably just as well. Even native English speakers would probably not guess that Peru, as well as being a South American republic, is also a shade of orangish brown, and the possibility for something getting lost in translation if these color names were widely used is almost certain. For this level of precision, numbers do the job far better than words.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 1st 2009, 7:21 AM
Comment by: Maurice B. (Tel Aviv Israel)
The difficulty in presenting a colour for display on a computer monitor is that each monitor, each monitor card, each colour card driver, and each program used to present the display via all of the above, and non-default settings selected by the user differ in their colour characteristics.

We cannot, therefore, be certain that the colour displayed on my computer screen is the same as that intended and seen by the author. This might be compared to a photograph providing an untrue rendition of colour.

At a level which I understand even less, it may be that each person's organic/brain rendition of a colour is slightly different. The perfect test would be for a person to compare directly the original and final rendition of a sample colour. This might require a person being in two places simultaneously but for that we will have to await new technology.
Thursday October 1st 2009, 8:05 AM
Comment by: Nicholas C.
Getting back to the poetry of colour-names you might like an article here
http://www.ibooknet.co.uk/archive/news_april04.htm#Feature

See the piece called "Colour (Color) Prejudice and William Yarrell"
about the glorious names that ornithologists devised to describe plumage.

It would be interestng to see a copy of Ridgway's "Color Standards and Nomenclature"(1912 Washington D.C.)with its "Eleven Hundred and Fifteen Named Colors”. Maybe that was the source for the names used in the X11 system.

And I can recommend the charming little book "Field Green" by H R Goodchild - link at the end of the article.
Thursday October 1st 2009, 8:17 AM
Comment by: Ray Adams (Adelaide Australia)
To further complicate things, the printing industry has for many years used the four-colour process -- based on Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (represented by C,M,Y & K respectively). An 'almost infinite' range of colours can be produced by overpinting these four colours in varying percentages. For example, Red (#FF0000 in the original article) is produced by overprinting Magenta and Yellow, and represented as C=0, M=100, Y=100, K=0. This mix of words and numbers provides printers with a standard that should theoretically produce the same colours wherever it is printed, similar to the Pantone standard.
While colour reproduction in printing is less complex than in screen technology for the reasons Maurice spells out, paper colour, quality and surface absorbency, as well as ink quality, all have some influence on the final product. The kelly green hoodie possibly started out looking like sweet pea in the designers studio, but....
Thursday October 1st 2009, 8:18 AM
Comment by: Perry R. (Marietta, GA)
I agree with Maurice B.
Only through an expensive calibration process can we get representations of color as expressed by hex/decimal conventions to be exhibited accuratly on our computer monitors.
Thursday October 1st 2009, 8:26 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
And all the calibration in the world won't help the 1 in 12 men (including me!) suffering from color-blindness.
Thursday October 1st 2009, 8:40 AM
Comment by: Amy R. (Chicago, IL)
And then there are the other variations in color perception and labeling. I think ketchup and tomatoes are a red-tinged orange, not red. My mom thinks my sister's pale green recliner is light blue. It's hard to come up with an accurate descriptor of a color if two different observers may not agree which way an in-between color tilts. Is teal blue or green? Is indigo more blue or purple?
Thursday October 1st 2009, 8:45 AM
Comment by: Michael A. (Evanston, IL)
Fascinating. I wonder if a similar taxonomic structure can be used for human emotion. If our language is wanting when describing two shades of yellow, think of the challenge of distinguishing between two emotions, e.g. anger tinted with jealousy directed by a woman to a man she is dating as compared to the anger colored with fear directed at the enemy by a sleep-deprived soldier. We may use the simple word "anger" to describe both feelings but what if we had a more precise emotional nomenclature? A good novelist can make these distinctions but it takes paragraphs to do so.

What Paul Ekman has done to classify the 10,000 expressions of the human face, what the color people have done with the Pantone and X11 systems, that's what we need for human emotion. Why can't we simply number our feelings? Or maybe use a combination of terms and numbers such that the term gives you a basic emotional location and the number adds the saturation, hue, etc.

Somebody must be doing this. Who?
Thursday October 1st 2009, 8:59 AM
Comment by: Ellen S.
A lot of my really good friends would not read this article before breakfast. I love the topic and the treatment!
For the sake of letting my brain rest, I would have appreciated you addressing the term "hoodie" early on in the article. You toss in the general term "garment" to describe it; that is technically correct, but not very specific.
Perhaps I have missed articles on "foodie" and "veggie" and "techie" (please link me up), but they are, to me, "creepies" that seem to be infiltrating our language. All of them describe different "thingies" like a jacket, then a person, a plant, and a person, respectively. They seem to imply functionality in some way.
They won't stop coming. I find them icky. Worse, I find myself using the terms.
But, your evolutionary view of terms for RoyGBiv is well done. Thanks!
Thursday October 1st 2009, 9:00 AM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
Talk of colour gives me a chance to mention something odd. The 2005 extended version of the OED difines aqua as a 'bluish green,' (asit appears in your chart above) and turquoise as a 'greenish blue.' Which is exactly the way I was taught as a child. Yet the online edition of the same dictionary makes no such distinction. In fact the online OED defines aqua as a 'light greenish blue.' What is going on here?
Thursday October 1st 2009, 9:00 AM
Comment by: Stephen H. (San Diego, CA)
I really enjoyed the article, it was most educational.
Thursday October 1st 2009, 10:05 AM
Comment by: ppeffy@bigpond.com.au
When describing fungi colours for scientific purposes I have to use a chart put out by the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh which is extremely limited colourwise but each colour is named and numbered. I have to modify my colour descriptions as described i.e paler, darker, lighter etc the chart having been used for many years. As a Patchworker, of an artistic bent and loving colour,I am very frustrated not being able to use more precise terms,and have difficulty matching my specimens with the chart, but my associate must be able to use a chart common to other botanists.
I enjoyed your article very much, as I have all treatises i have read on the subject and shall send it to my mentor
Thursday October 1st 2009, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Alejandra M.
Loved the article. Have been in love with color pencils forever.
Suddenly I found this:
What would one color be without 499 others?
Introducing 500 Colored Pencils: the only set in the world that matches the span and wonder of human creativity.
Express whatever you dream, with beautiful visual precision.
Each pencil is its own story. A unique hue with an inventive name to inspire the far corners of your creativity.
Together, the colors suggest infinite possibilities.
See them all »
http://500pencils.socialdesigner.com/about
Thursday October 1st 2009, 11:00 AM
Comment by: brian H.
ppeffy's mention of fungi colors reminded me of my days as a soil scientist, when a Munsell color book (with color chips affixed to the pages) was an essential part of the field kit, for describing soil colors. What a glorious object it was! Not every color of the rainbow, but 150 nuanced differences found in soils, and more beautiful in some ways for the limitations.
Color names are a delight (does that make me a namie?), yet I'm wary of those that seem to have been invented recently for product catalogues. I wonder what the best way to trace the etymology of these words is? (on-line of course...)
Thursday October 1st 2009, 11:23 AM
Comment by: David B.
An amusing corporate corollary for Maurice B--at big firms, senior executives often have the best & freshest monitors, so their view may be (literally) more rosy than more junior colleagues...
Thursday October 1st 2009, 1:06 PM
Comment by: Heather B. (Tampa, FL)
Given the love of etymology in other VT articles, I'm surprised that this one didn't go into more depth on the sources of the color names: minerals for pigments, plants for dyes, and so on.

I keep a copy of a paint catalog for writing inspiration. It amazes me that someone could come up with 200 different, perfectly evocative names for brown, from "Driftwood" to "Zen." Now there's some vocabulary skill!
Thursday October 1st 2009, 1:40 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for comments. I struggled to keep this to a reasonable length because there are so many fascinating aspects – especially, as Amy R notes, the apparent differences in perception of the same color by different speakers (and by extension, by different cultures). I once worked on a learner’s dictionary with a 2-page spread of color samples and names – it took forever for the editors to reach consensus about what some of the subtler shades should be called. I also remember reading a long time ago (though I could not find it in researching this piece) that people discriminate more subtle distinctions among the colors that predominate in their environments, and tend to find more beauty in them: thus desert dwellers have more discriminating words for browns, forest dwellers for greens. A couple of specifics:
@Nicholas: thanks for the fascinating link! It makes many similar points, and I love the novel use of the term “color prejudice.” BTW, the book you mention, Color Standards and Nomenclature, can be viewed in a sample via Google Books; there’s also a contemporary paperback reprint of it on Amazon. I didn’t realize that Mr. Ridgway is the unsung hero of English color-naming.
@Ben: did you read that a new genetic therapy has enabled colorblind squirrel monkeys to discern colors previously unknown to them? Perhaps there’s hope.
@Ellen: hoodie = hooded sweatshirt, whether pullover or zip-up. See any LL Bean catalog.
Thursday October 1st 2009, 1:48 PM
Comment by: Andrea R.
On Sweet Pea:
Perhaps they hoodie gang were referring to the fresh sweet peas you purchase in the store, as opposed to the leaf color of the plant?
In fact I would say those yummy little creatures are cloaked in Kelly Green!
Thursday October 1st 2009, 2:09 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
>no one bothers to translate the 150 or so English color name

I think this is because those are hard-coded strings in HTML, so they would not come render correctly except as represented by their English-based names. No?
Thursday October 1st 2009, 2:20 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
There's a wonderful scene in the film, "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," when Mrs. Blanding (Myrna Loy, married to Cary Grant) leads a housepainter through the rooms of the new house, telling him exactly what she wants: (I'll paraphrase): "Now here I want a robin's egg blue, but not too blue, more like the blue of the sky an hour after dawn)" and on like that for numerous colors and numerous rooms. The painter follows her, muttering from time to time to his assistant, "Blue....yellow...pink."
Thursday October 1st 2009, 4:59 PM
Comment by: Linda L. (Peynier)
In French, "goldfish" are called "red fish" (poissons rouges), traffic lights are red "ORANGE" and green, and people with dark brown eyes are said to have "black eyes"! The French think it's weird that in English you can say someone has naturally "red" hair -- their word is "roux". so maybe it's more like "auburn" (BTW, is there a difference in English?). "Strawberry blond" has my French students rolling on the floor with laughter!
The language you speak obviously colors your perception of things in so many ways, including chromatically.
Thursday October 1st 2009, 5:24 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
As a scientist who is very fond of spectroscopy I love colours too. Strangely, I know another scientist who gives his favourite colour as 534 nm. This wavelength describes the colour of a green laser, and is synonymous with a particular physical process.
Thursday October 1st 2009, 9:40 PM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
There is also a political aspect to colors. Many of the old names for crayons have been changed because they might have given offense to some sensitive soul. "Flesh", "Prussian blue", and "Indian red" are gone from the big box of Crayolas, having been replaced by "peach", "midnight blue", and "chestnut". For more, Google "Crayola crayon colors".
Thursday October 1st 2009, 10:08 PM
Comment by: Ray Adams (Adelaide Australia)
@Ben Zimmer -- Like you, Ben, I am one of those (blue-eyed, 'red-green deficient') males. Using the CMYK system, which I described in my previous post, in a publishing business for many years, I found that I could estimate colour percentages more accurately than people with so-called normal colour perception. This was to the amazement of many of my colleagues, who always found it difficult to look at a colour and make an estimate like, "that's 50% Cyan, 15% Yellow and 10% Black." So what is normal colour perception?

It makes me wonder if, when describing colour, we are all looking at very different things and trying to apply a universal nomenclature. As Maurice B suggests, we need the technology to determine what others are really seeing before we can judge these things. Beyond holding two colour samples side by side and being able to say that they are the same or different, we can never be sure what the other person is really seeing. And the names used in paint catalogues leave me scratching my head in wonder at times. What colour is 'Wild Rice'? What colour is 'Driftwood'? I far prefer Pantone or CMYK.
Friday October 2nd 2009, 2:16 PM
Comment by: Heidi H. (Columbia, SC)
I have owned two cars that were impossible to identify as to color. One was a Subaru that was "Caribbean Sea Foam," a color that seemed precisely half-way between blue and green and matched neither aqua nor turquoise. Another was an old Plymouth that was "Antique Harvest Gold," a rather dreadful color that hung out between brown, green, tan, yellow and blech. It changed colors in different lights -- this many years before clear coat gave car colors more depth. As I moved from state to state with the Plymouth, different states put different colors on the title.
Friday October 2nd 2009, 11:04 PM
Comment by: brian H.
Linda L. reminds me that in Japanese, "aoi" is translated as blue and usually that seems right. But a green apple and the "go" traffic light are both "aoi"
Sunday October 4th 2009, 1:30 AM
Comment by: Joan G.
Linda's comment reminds me that there is a single Chinese character which can be translated as either green or blue, and is sometimes called a "nature colour". Another example of the cultural differences in perception.
Tuesday October 6th 2009, 3:20 PM
Comment by: Cindy S.
I love this ... word-people discussing visual-people concepts.

I'm a graphic designer and, in the same way Anonymous keeps a paint catalog, I keep a thesaurus for design inspiration.

Thanks for exploring this cross-discipline topic.

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