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Colour names

Adding the rainbow to your writing

In the beginning, there was only light and dark. Then we named red. We got along fine without a name for blue until the Dark Ages, when we laid the foundations of 11 basic colour terms: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, brown, grey, black and white. It was the Victorians who went bonkers for inventing colours. We’ve never gotten over it.

‘Let me, O let me bathe my soul in colours; let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow.’

Khalil Gibran

I’ve been collecting dictionary-defined colour names for a couple of weeks. There are two kinds: abstract names, like magenta, which is what it is, and descriptive names relating to an object of the relevant hue, like persimmon. I only keep the words that make me smile, but I already have 286 colours.

All set to purple-up my prose, right? I'm not so sure.

Naming colours is a tricksy business. We each see colour differently, with our unique eyes and cones and visual cortices. Mr Gaitskell sees oranges when I see reds. Some see maroons as browns, others as purples.

But it’s more complicated than that. The way we see colours is also influenced by our names for them. Colour names, like given names and nicknames, have very personal resonances. Just as you have an irresistible association for a Maggie or a Johnny, so you have one for poppy or flesh, pistachio or foxy. We have relationships with colours.

‘Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings.’

Wassily Kandinsky

I wonder whether we’d even try so hard to perceive a colour differently if somebody hadn’t given a name to it. I've collected, for example, a remarkable variety of names for colours very like buff, which resolve themselves into a disappointing rainbow as I read them.

More complicated still, over time, the names we give colours can lose their meaning. Looking in my old thesaurus, I found a shade of yellow called London Fog. The only times I’ve seen London Fog, it was in black and white. I don't know for sure what it means. (Except, each time I imagine it, I’m more convinced I know the shade.)

Complication upon complication! Colour names change in meaning too. If I say puke, whatever colour you’re thinking of, I very much doubt it’s the dark brown it used to be, named for a woollen cloth.

When it comes down to it, we’re all imagining colours, at least in part. So, we can use whatever words we choose to evoke them, dictionary-defined or otherwise, knowing that the reader will turn their own personal colour dial, pick up their own resonances.

But, I love the colour names I’ve found. Reading them aloud, ordered by colour group, has a soothing effect, like the Shipping Forecast. Try this:

Jessamy and massicot, gamboge and orpiment;

quince, nacarat, minium;

incarnadine and amaranth;

cocquelicot, cinnabar, and puccoon;


perse and whimper;

eau-de-nil, viridian and gaudy;

bistre, burnet, sorrel;

watchet and liard, ink.

Don't you feel better?

If you’re interested in colour and its history, I recommend the Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair - my review is on Goodreads.

Want more colour words in a hurry? Here’s a rather splendid list from the Phrontistery.

The final word should go to the ever astute Mr Gaitskell.

‘Peacock blue! Why would you need peacock blue, unless you’re describing a peacock?’

Mr Gaitskell

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