Raw umber is just the beginning...
June 20, 2008 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Colors have many names. The online color thesaurus will recognize 20,000 of them (and let you see which is most popular). You can also browse a page of colors and associated names (yes, "goose turd" and "dead Spaniard" were once common color names). Of course, the most popular color names probably come from our childhoods.

For those looking for more colors, some cities are also associated with colors, as the beautiful pictures will attest. And each religion has its own color scheme (Shinto, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity). Meanwhile, MoMA looks at the evolution of color in modern art.
posted by blahblahblah (29 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
looks like we're all sailing around in battleship blue.
posted by rooftop secrets at 12:31 PM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ah. Nice. The social construction of color. Some people don't like it when the suggestion is made that color is subjectively and culturally defined. They think they know what red is.
posted by R. Mutt at 12:35 PM on June 20, 2008

This is so awesome, thanks. I also love The Primary Colors and The Secondary Colors, by Alexander Theroux.
posted by Liosliath at 12:46 PM on June 20, 2008

I miss Marrakech terribly now - and the lovely blue city of Fes, and Meknes the Green.
posted by Liosliath at 12:50 PM on June 20, 2008

Inch Worm? Jazzberry Jam? Fun in the Sun? Beaver/Bear Hug?

Either Crayola has really jumped the shark or someone got the wiki pages for crayon colors and porn titles mixed up again.
posted by rokusan at 12:54 PM on June 20, 2008

The strangest color name I ever encountered was a shade of what I'd call "battleship gray" that we used to paint my great aunt's house one summer. It was called "saxophone", for reasons that remain a complete mystery to me.
posted by sotonohito at 1:04 PM on June 20, 2008

I love this.
posted by Pax at 1:24 PM on June 20, 2008

I've heard goose turd being used (and I've never been to the 16th century). It's quite a nice colour.
posted by bjrn at 1:24 PM on June 20, 2008

I should have been so clever in my post, but this this is apparently Goose Turd.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:29 PM on June 20, 2008

Oops, I guess the font html code works in preview, but not in the post. Nevermind.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:30 PM on June 20, 2008

If you are interested in color terms, you might want to look into Berlin and Kay, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969) (ISBN 1-57586-162-3).

In a nutshell, B&K found that languages can be ordered by the number of native color terms that the language includes. Native color term means words like English /blue/ that name a hue directly, as opposed to English /orange/, a word that came to refer to a hue indirectly.

B&K further state that the order of additional terms is predictable:

1. All languages have native terms for: black/dark and white/light.
2. If there are 3 color terms, the 3rd is always red.
3. If 4, the 4th is either green or yellow.
4. If 5, the 5th is the remainder of the pair green/yellow.
5. If 6, the 6th is blue.
6. If 7, the 7th is brown.
7. After that, pink, purple, orange, and grey are attested, in no particular order.

After that -- yeah, raw umber is just the beginning.
posted by Herodios at 1:35 PM on June 20, 2008 [6 favorites]

Not Battleship Blue, Teräksensininen
posted by MtDewd at 1:46 PM on June 20, 2008

My Best Practical Joke:

Back in 1998, I put up a (long gone) website called the "Internet Color Registry", said to be a consortium of major browser companies. The site had a simple database that allowed you to register color hex codes used in web pages much as you would register a vanity domain name. You got to name the color and anyone seeking to use it had to obtain your permission. I announced that we had a series of scanning bots that went out looking for illegal codes and turning the information over to the proper legal authorities. It got tons of hits and I got earnest emails from bunches of webmasters asking how they could ensure compliance with the new regulation. I was even cited in Kibo's "1998 HappyNet Manifesto".

Those were the good ol' days! Back then a ride on the Shebeyville ferry cost five bees and I wore an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time ...
posted by RavinDave at 1:51 PM on June 20, 2008 [6 favorites]

Of course, the most popular color names probably come from our childhoods.

"Flesh" (pre-sensitivity training Crayola).
posted by oncogenesis at 1:52 PM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I prefer my Umber burnt, thank you.
posted by tommasz at 1:53 PM on June 20, 2008

Herodios, I'm going to find that Berlin and Kay book, if only to figure out how the word orange (from naranj, the fruit) is an 'indirect' color name, but green (from growan, plant-growth) is 'direct'.
posted by rokusan at 2:13 PM on June 20, 2008

I nominate Pepsi Blue to the list.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 2:16 PM on June 20, 2008

No 'Dead Salmon'... FAIL

(One of the crazier names I remembered from a talk I saw by Victoria Finlay, writer of Color: A Natural History of the Palette, a book I'd recommend.)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:40 PM on June 20, 2008

Raw Umber. Burnt Umber.
Doesn't anyone have a nicely-prepared medium-rare umber? Served with an insouciant claret?
posted by hexatron at 3:47 PM on June 20, 2008


A term is a basic color term in a specific language if it is refers to a hue unmediated by other referents. In English /blue/, /green/, and /red/ are native words that refer to specific ranges of light frequencies.

In contrast, /crimson/ and /scarlet/ arrived in English by way of foreign words for various dyes; /azure/ by way of a foreign term for a gemstone; /teal/ by way of a feather on a duck.

As far as /green/ vs /growan/, they may be etymologically related, but as a native speaker of the language, you know that in modern English, /green/ refers to a range of light frequencies in a way that is unmediated by any other metaphor, while /verdant/, /emerald/, and /celadon/ are color terms in English by way of plants, gems, and obscure medieval fictional characters, respectively.

In languages identified by B&K as having 3, 4, or 5 basic color terms, obviously some non-basic term is used to refer to the remaining colors. But it need not be borrowed from an other language.

Suppose English had only /black/, /white/, and /red/. Perhaps the language would include a color term forming suffix, say /-ton/. Then our eight color crayon box might contain:

o black
o white
o red
o graston
o sunton
o skyton
o earthton
o grapeton

That's my understanding of Brown & Kay. Naturally, they have their critics. You might also be interested in what Saunders has to say.
posted by Herodios at 3:48 PM on June 20, 2008

Rat's Colour: 1518, Dull grey, worn by poor people.

That's hilariously sad.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 3:54 PM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Herodios - I think that's exactly rokusan's point: that "green" is etymologically descended (or at least related) from the Old English verb "growan" and thus as non-native as "orange" or "verdant". One can't define so-called native color terms as words which have no etymological intermediary other than their meaning as a color, and then turn around and say, "Well, as modern speakers, we don't use these terms with their original meaning, so it doesn't matter." Etymology doesn't work that way. No one thinks of "celadon" as a character name (unless they're a medieval historian, presumably)!

I'm not well-versed in the Brown/Kay argument and don't really have a stake in this - just pointing out what rokusan seems to be getting at.
posted by bettafish at 5:41 PM on June 20, 2008

Herodios - I think that's exactly rokusan's point: that "green" is etymologically. . .

B&Ks basic color terms argument is not about etymology. It is about color terms in the language, looked at synchronically.

It is difficult to discuss with reference to English only, since English happens to be one of those with lots of color terms.

The part of my previous post considering English as a stage I through IV language (fewer terms) is salient. More than that I cannot say, other than to suggest that if the topic interests you, go to the source. See the links above.
posted by Herodios at 6:45 PM on June 20, 2008

There was a Crayola color named "burnt sienna" that I always liked, mostly because I no idea what sienna was let alone what burnt sienna was supposed to be.
posted by nooneyouknow at 9:44 PM on June 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Great post. I expecially like the ancient cities of color.
posted by homunculus at 11:46 PM on June 20, 2008

There have to be like, 35 z's in the newest crayola box.
For fuck's sake. Fuzzy wuzzy brown? Purple pizzaz? Jazzberry?
What the shit is a jazzberry?
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 9:50 PM on June 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

"What is light urple Trebek?"
posted by daHIFI at 9:05 AM on June 23, 2008

I quite like this list of colours associated with Canadian cities, from the January issue of "The Walrus".
posted by LN at 10:39 AM on June 23, 2008

Name that Color resolves hex codes (#RRGGBB) to color names.
posted by taursir at 11:41 AM on June 23, 2008

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