What is the new black?

As the world becomes more virtual, the virtual becomes more fungible. It’s sort of a dance. Take color. Once it was a fragile and passing attribute of some real object. We may speak of red roses, but what do we mean? So many reds, so many roses. Nevertheless, in times past, it sufficed to say that roses are red. Sure, a poet may speak of the crackling fire of a rose, but where does that get you quantitatively speaking? Better to say Pantone 17-1463 TCX (a.k.a. #2E492F, the Pantone 2012 Color of the Year). Now that’s a color you can calculate with. That color has a house, a bank account, and a swimming pool. That color smokes a pipe and drives a nicer car than you.

My favorite example of color name transfer is teal. The word teal comes from a duck, the Eurasian or Common Teal (Anas crecca). Now of course, no two ducks have the same color eye stripe (whence the eponymous color). But the color came along and appropriated the name to #367588, which, we may suppose, no duck has ever precisely matched. I like to imagine the color conversing with the duck. Color: “Dude, you’re not teal. I’m teal. You’re some kind of crappy ersatz teal.” Duck (reddening): “Quack!”

Bertrand Russell once said that “everything is vague to a degree you do not realize until you have tried to make it precise.” At least I’m pretty sure that’s what he said. Having gone to the trouble of specifying and objectifying color, what now may we do? We can mine it, manufacture it, trade it, and predict it.

We can send color expeditions to the Amazon to mine and extract colors from the living scene. Not colored things. Not artifacts and objects, but the quantified and distilled color itself, pinned like a butterfly to a specimen case. Color predictions in fashion takes this one step farther. If I’m about to make a big investment in a line of aubergine evening wear, I might want to buy some color futures as a hedge. People are already doing this sort of thing with weather futures, so why not? The sky may look blue, but who knows what it is really?

Stalking the wild chartreuse

Let’s say you’re a designer, a coutourier, and you’re trying to figure out what to do for your upcoming spring collection. You’ve been going through the Pantone color swatches, you’ve browsed through the Fashion Color Report (PDF), but nothing seems vivid and alive enough. What to do?


Well, if you’re Issey Miyake, you send a team of color experts on a trip to the Amazon to go hunting for wild colors. There’s something so marvelously obsessive and wacky about this that I can’t help but be impressed. ColourLovers does a nice job breaking it down for us:

Dai and his team traveled with a huge collection of cloth colour samples. They tested these against trees, leaves, bark and mud to find the palette of the forest.

I just love the image of intrepid explorers deep in the jungle, wearing pith helmets and mosquito netting, hard up against the buttressed roots of a ceiba tree, and armed only with … a stack of color swatches.

The Issey Miyake site and full video can be found here.

Alan’s Color/Language Project

Alan Kennedy has written here many times before, most recently about the many color-related idioms that people use around the world. Alan has wonderful vantage point for making his observations: he teaches English to adults who have come to Manhattan from all over the world. He has taken a particular and abiding interest in colorful language, and when I offered to support his research on this site, he was happy to take me up on it.

So I am delighted to present a new and permanent installation on this site, Alan Kennedy’s Color/Language Project. There are three parts to it.

First of all, you can read his short article, Linguistic Facts About Color. I found the Berlin/Kay color spectrum especially interesting: languages always add colors in the same order. Any language with words for only three colors will always have names for white, black, and red. Any language with six color words will add green, yellow, and blue. I was surprised to see that leafy green has primacy over the blue of sky and sea. Even yellow outranks blue.

The next resource for the Color Project is an ever-growing spreadsheet, Color Idioms In Different Languages (if you prefer, you can see that same information as a single Google Spreadsheet page). Look at the color distributions by language. The list is far from comprehensive, but it hints at some intriguing possibilities. Is German bluer than most languages? Is Korean redder? And why?

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, you can add your own favorite expression to this resource using this Color Idiom contribution form. The suggested idioms won’t appear instantly on the list; Alan will review them from time to time and they’ll get added to the published spreadsheet.

So there you have it: a new resource, courtesy of Alan (with a little help from his friends here at Star Chamber Headquarters). Help it grow.

Color My World

Which word is more colorful: color or colour?

If you’re American, do you ever color your “colors” with an occasional “U” to lend your prose a sense of savoir faire? At any rate, have you ever wondered where the U went? A lovely blog called COLOURlovers addresses this question with an informative post called Color vs. Colour – The Great Spelling Battle. The short version is that when Noah “Dictionary is My Last Name” Webster saw colour he saw red. If you know what I mean.

By the way, from the COLOURlovers site, I also recommend the Color Legends posts (Part I and Part II).

When it comes to teasing apart the idiomatic weirdness of language, no one is better than Rambles contributor Alan Kennedy. So we are tickled pink this week to have Alan tell us about the strangely liberal and incoherent use of color across cultures. Take it away Alan…

Continue reading “Color My World”