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Picture of shufitz
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A Color of Words is active now, but here's a thought about "Words of Color".

It recently struck me that we have amazingly few words that name a particular color. We have red, green, blue, and a handful of others.

But once you get past that basic few, we have to resort to one of two other devices to name a color. We might an intangible adjective to one of our basic names (and call a color light blue, dark red, blue-green, etc.) Alternatively, we'll we simply point to some familiar object that has the color in question, and use that object's name as the name of the color: cherry, jade, plum, sky-blue, etc. We need to make recourse to such a device, for we have no other word that specifies the color we mean.

It's surprising to me how very few familar color-names we have, apart from these devices. Nine are easy: five from the rainbow plus four 'muddy' colors: red, green, yellow, blue, violet, black, white, grey, brown.¹

Thinking about it, I can only come up with only half a dozen color-names, without plunging into obscure words or 'names that point to an object'. What can we name together? And more important, why is our descriptive power so weak in such an important area?


¹Perhaps you can add orange, gold, and silver -- or perhaps not, in that they are just names of things used metaphorically. I'd exclude 'indigo' for the same reason, and also because no one ever uses that word outside of the study of rainbows. Have you ever told someone you'd purchased an 'indigo shirt'? Of course not.

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Let's see, there is cerulean, azure, chartreuse magenta, purple.

BTW, did you know there is a word, "cerulein?"

"A decapeptide that stimulates smooth muscle, especially gallbladder contraction, and increases digestive secretions."

They are both pronounced the same way. It might come in handy when we are doing the "C's" on OEDILF! Wink
 
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Originally posted by shufitz:
A Color of Words is active now, but here's a thought about "Words of Color".

It recently struck me that we have amazingly few words that name a particular color. We have red, green, blue, and a handful of others.

But once you get past that basic few, we have to resort to one of two other devices to name a color. We might an intangible adjective to one of our basic names (and call a color light blue, dark red, blue-green, etc.) Alternatively, we'll we simply point to some familiar object that has the color in question, and use that object's name as the name of the color: cherry, jade, plum, sky-blue, etc. We need to make recourse to such a device, for we have no other word that specifies the color we mean.

It's surprising to me how very few familar color-names we have, apart from these devices. Nine are easy: five from the rainbow plus four 'muddy' colors: red, green, yellow, blue, violet, black, white, grey, brown.¹

Thinking about it, I can only come up with only half a dozen color-names, without plunging into obscure words or 'names that point to an object'. What can we name together? And more important, why is our descriptive power so weak in such an important area?


¹Perhaps you can add orange, gold, and silver -- or perhaps not, in that they are just names of things used metaphorically. I'd exclude 'indigo' for the same reason, and also because no one ever uses that word outside of the study of rainbows. Have you ever told someone you'd purchased an 'indigo shirt'? Of course not.


When I was a small girl in the 1950s I used to have water colour paint boxes. They were flat metal with compartments for small slabs of pigments and the names of the colours were printed on the metal below each little slab in very small letters.

I loved the names of those paints (I was very much into words even then) and I can still remember many of them. There was "Umber" and "Burnt Umber", "Burnt Sienna", "Viridian", "Carmine", "Maroon", "Mauve", "Alizarin", "Chrome Yellow", "Cobalt", "Lapis Lazuli", "Aquamarine", "Madder" and there were many others (I know there were three shades of black, including "Lamp Black").

I've just found a few good sites which might give you some ideas. This one has a comprehensive list of colour names.

This is mostly for web designers, but it has a list of colours, with their Hex addresses and a strip of the colour beside them.

You can have great fun with this one Smile!
 
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Words of color just don't bother us,
And we don't understand all the fuss;
They did wisely decide
They will no longer ride
In the seats in the back of the bus.
 
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There was "Umber" and "Burnt Umber", "Burnt Sienna", "Viridian", "Carmine", "Maroon", "Mauve", "Alizarin", "Chrome Yellow", "Cobalt", "Lapis Lazuli", "Aquamarine", "Madder" and there were many others (I know there were three shades of black, including "Lamp Black")



But even some of these are really descriptive words of things that are that color. Like Aquamarine and Chrome Yellow.


*******
"Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.
~Dalai Lama
 
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Some languages have only two basic colour words (warm/dark and light/cool); others have three (red separate from the previous two); commonly they extend into the primary rainbow colours by adding some or all of green, blue, yellow.

English is unusual in having so many basic colour terms. I'd say there were eleven, counting pink and orange. Of these eleven, pink, orange, and purple or violet are historically recent additions to the palette, named from objects or artefacts (purple a dye), but even so the culturally less sophisticated Old English had eight, a comparatively large number.

Japanese has (I think) only four: siroi 'white', kuroi 'black', akai 'red', aoi 'blue, green'. I can't remember what they use for the yellow range, but I think it's just gin-iro 'gold-colour'.

The distinction between basic colours and special shade terms is important, and I think all languages have it. If something is cerulean or azure it's also blue; but if something is violet it's neither (in English) red nor blue. As well as object-based names (Japanese also has momo-iro 'peach-colour, pink'), languages can have minor names without these impinging on the broad coverage of the basic terms (murasaki 'purple', midori '[a kind of?] green').

Intuitions also seem clearer on spectral shades, and less so on murky or dull ones: I am unsure what to do with ones like ochre, beige, and drab, but I generally lump them in with brown or yellow rather than erecting a separate basic colour.
 
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I understand that ancient Greek had very few words for colours. Hence, no doubt, Homer's use of phrases such as, "The wine-dark sea".


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
 
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The problem with the Ancient Greek words is more that we're not sure what exactly they meant. There are perhaps three that are clear: not coincidentally, melas 'black', leukos 'white', erythros 'red'. After that we have a number more words, and in modern scientific use they're treated as if they mean 'green', 'blue', etc., but it's not clear what they covered then.

There's kyaneos 'blue, dark blue, dark grey', and glaukos 'blue, grey, dull green', and khloros 'green, yellowish, fresh, pale', and xanthos 'yellow, ruddy, brown'. This doesn't actually mean Greek colour words were used strangely: you'd get the same weird diversity if you tried to work out what English 'red' meant on the basis of red hair and red wine, or 'black' from black skin or 'white' from white skin and white wine. Just because a word glaukos was used for some particular object doesn't mean it generally covered that colour.

The 'wine dark' of the sea is oinops, literally 'wine-face', that is 'wine-appearance'.
 
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arnie: "I understand that ancient Greek had very few words for colours. Hence, no doubt, Homer's use of phrases such as, 'The wine-dark sea'."

Perhaps the latter is due to the former. But as another possibility, recall that the Iliad and Odyssey were originally poetic tales to be recited from memory. Accordingly, it was useful to have a recurrent phrase, making it easier for the memory. Moreover, any alternate terms or phrases that existed might nonetheless be avoided, simply because they did not fit the meter.

'Wine-dark sea' is one of several phrases that Homer uses over and over and over. It would be interesting to see whether other ancient Greek writers use those same phrases. If so, it would tend to show that Homer's usage was due to the constraints of the ancient Greek tongue; if not, it would suggest that the more relevant factor was the constraint of Homer's particular form.

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English is unusual in having so many basic colour terms.

I surely didn't know that. How interesting.

Aput's colors in Greek are so elucidating to me because now I realize the origin of several medical terms. For example, I imagine "melanoma" arises from melas as it is a skin cancer that is dark in color. Likewise, "erythrocyte," the red blood cell, must come from erthyros. "Leukemia" and "leukocyte" must come from leukos. "Leukemia" is a malignant proliferation of the white blood cells, and "leukocytes" are those white blood cells. I imagine "cyanosis" arises from kyaneos, as well as cyanephidrosis (bluish sweat). "Cyanosis" is a bluish color to the skin when one is in need of oxygen (hypoxic). Likewise "xanthoma," a yellowish nodule around the eyelids that either occurs with aging or has been associated with hypercholesterolemia, obviously originates from xanthos, along with "xanthosis," which is yellowish skin resulting from excessive ingestion of foods with carotene. Etymology online says that "glaucoma" originates from glaukos, though I am not sure why. Glaucoma is characterized by an increased pressure in the eye and eventually results in blindness. It could be that early on, when cataracts and glaucoma were not distinguised from each other (that didn't happen until 1705), the term had been used to describe the dullness that is associated with cataracts. Or maybe it's the greyish one sees when he is blind or the staring associated with blindness? I am not sure of the precise link, but clearly, from the following Etymology online discussion, glaukos is associated with eyes:

"...glaukos, an adj. of uncertain origin, used in Homer of the sea as 'gleaming, silvery' (apparently without a color connotation); used later with a sense of 'bluish-green, gray,' of olive leaves and eyes. Homer's glauk-opis Athene could be a 'bright-eyed' or a 'gray-eyed' goddess. Gk. for 'owl was glauk- from its bright, staring eyes."

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Originally posted by aput:
The problem with the Ancient Greek words is more that we're not sure what exactly they meant. There are perhaps three that are clear: not coincidentally, melas 'black', leukos 'white', erythros 'red'. After that we have a number more words, and in modern scientific use they're treated as if they mean 'green', 'blue', etc., but it's not clear what they covered then.


Hence "melanic" which is the black form of an organism, "leukaemia" which affects white blood cells and "erythrocytes" which are red blood cells

quote:
There's kyaneos 'blue, dark blue, dark grey', and glaukos 'blue, grey, dull green', and khloros 'green, yellowish, fresh, pale', and xanthos 'yellow, ruddy, brown'.


"Cyanosis", where the skin turns blue; "glaucous", which relates to a bluish or greyish colouration on an organism (especially birds Glaucous Gull and plants); "chlorophyll", which is the green pigment in plants and some interesting informaion on xanthic

quote:
This doesn't actually mean Greek colour words were used strangely: you'd get the same weird diversity if you tried to work out what English 'red' meant on the basis of red hair and red wine, or 'black' from black skin or 'white' from white skin and white wine. Just because a word glaukos was used for some particular object doesn't mean it generally covered that colour.


It's even more complicated when you get different languages involved, such as Rufous and Ruddy for red.

quote:
The 'wine dark' of the sea is oinops, literally 'wine-face', that is 'wine-appearance'.


I never could relate to that. Having lived in Mediterranean countries for several years, the sea is anything but wine-coloured - at any time of year. I suppose it's because the blue in summer is so intense.

Sorry, I love words and I get carried away at the slightest excuse (some people think I should be carried away permanently Frown).
 
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Dianthus, I guess we were posting at about the same time!
 
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Originally posted by Kalleh:
Dianthus, I guess we were posting at about the same time!


I get that a lot with the other forums I belong to Smile. It's an occupational hazard Smile.
 
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Originally posted by wordnerd:
arnie: "I understand that ancient Greek had very few words for colours. Hence, no doubt, Homer's use of phrases such as, 'The wine-dark sea'."

Perhaps the latter is due to the former. But as another possibility, recall that the Iliad and Odyssey were originally poetic tales to be recited from memory. Accordingly, it was useful to have a recurrent phrase, making it easier for the memory. Moreover, any alternate terms or phrases that existed might nonetheless be avoided, simply because they did not fit the meter.

'Wine-dark sea' is one of several phrases that Homer uses over and over and over. It would be interesting to see whether other ancient Greek writers use those same phrases. If so, it would tend to show that Homer's usage was due to the constraints of the ancient Greek tongue; if not, it would suggest that the more relevant factor was the constraint of Homer's particular form.


I googled for "wine dark sea greek poetry" and came up with several sites.

This one is interesting, not so much for the actual book, but for what some of the reviewers say about it - and Greek epic poetry in general.

Classical Writers Directory. Excellent site with numerous links arranged in several ways for easy reference.
 
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"Wine-dark sea" is an example of a standing epithet. The device is a common one in sagas and epic poetry; Greek, Latin, Old Norse, Sanskrit, ancient Egyptian, Etruscan and other Indo-European verses used it.

Chaucer uses it in a slightly different way: whenever the word "scholar" appears, it is preceded by "poor". No doubt a gentle hint! Wink


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
 
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<Asa Lovejoy>
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Chaucer uses it in a slightly different way: whenever the word "scholar" appears, it is preceded by "poor". No doubt a gentle hint! Wink


But is "poor" impecunious or of little ability?
 
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I'd said, "I can come up with only half a dozen color-names [beyond the nine I named], without plunging into obscure words or 'names that point to an object'. "

That half-dozen was tan, pink, crimson, scarlet, maroon and purple, some of which have already been mentioned.
 
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We've had a similar discussion of colors before.

Tinman

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Originally posted by tinman:
We've had a similar discussion of colors before.

Tinmsn


I've just had a read of it - very interesting Smile.

I don't know whether you have it over there, but we British have the colour "Taupe". This is a sort of nondescript greyish-mushroom colour with a slight tan overtone.
 
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If modern languages are a largely male construct, the limitation of colour words may be due to our colour blindness? That is why we need our mother, girlfriend or wife to dress us. I will have to look up the gene involved along with it's frequency distribution. For now it is sufficient to say that men are much more prone to colour blindness. Why differentiate between slight differences when a group of men would find it difficult to agree on even basic colours.
If my initial assumption is way off please correct me.
 
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Originally posted by Quark:
If modern languages are a largely male construct, the limitation of colour words may be due to our colour blindness? That is why we need our mother, girlfriend or wife to dress us. I will have to look up the gene involved along with it's frequency distribution. For now it is sufficient to say that men are much more prone to colour blindness. Why differentiate between slight differences when a group of men would find it difficult to agree on even basic colours.
If my initial assumption is way off please correct me.


It's true that they care far less. Most men I know aren't particularly bothered whether something is rose, fuchsia, neon or cerise. As far as they're concerned, it's pink and that's that.

This is an interesting article and so is this.

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It is certainly true that language is a male construct and this has caused some frustration to female writers over the years. Virginia Woolf leaps to mind in a few of her critical essays. I'm not sure about the colour blindness. I think men can see the differences in colour but simply can't be bothered to describe the differences in as much detail. I'm looking at a postcard now with a variety of shades of pink on it but I don't feel the need to think of a new name for each shade. Some are just lighter or darker than others.
 
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There's a a book that suggests females may have had more to do with language development than previously thought, but I can't remember what it is and have yet to read it, so that's not much help, lol.

Shu mentions at the top that "I'd exclude 'indigo' for the same reason, and also because no one ever uses that word outside of the study of rainbows." Maybe I'm just unusual (it has been said!), but I use that word a lot, along with many of the other 'types/shades of basic colour X' The most recent example I can think of is asking my friends to keep an eye out for a pair of indigo jeans for me.

The male / female differences already talked about remind me of something in Why Gay Guys are a Girl's Best Friend :

"Gay guys know the obvious differences between chestnut, sable, taupe, sandstone, bark and cocoa. Straight guys will describe the same colours as brown, brown, brown, brown, brown and brown."
 
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The book that suggests female activities were specifically important to language evolution is probably one by Robin Dunbar: Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. That's the one that got a lot of popular press interest.

A fellow linguistics student who was doing a sociolinguistic study on colour discrimination in the sexes quickly decided she didn't want my actual answers, and I had to pretend to be a male working-class person, and respond to all the colour chips with "brown" . :-)
 
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That is hilarious, aput! Smile

In that link that Tinman posted from our old discussion of colors (thanks, Tinman!), there was a color blindness test there that you might find interesting to take.
 
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That's the one, aput. A friend lent it to me but I never got round to reading it, so I have no idea if it's worthwhile. Sounds interesting though.

Whether language is a male or female construct, people with 'female' brains tend to use it more, being more likely to communicate feelings, and be more descriptive in their speech.

Lol - have just had a feeling of déjà vu: I seem to remember talking about the above before and using a 'taking the scenic route vs getting there as quickly as possible' analogy.
 
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Originally posted by shufitz:
I'd said, "I can come up with only half a dozen color-names [beyond the nine I named], without plunging into obscure words or 'names that point to an object'. "

That half-dozen was tan, pink, crimson, scarlet, maroon and purple, some of which have already been mentioned.


How about Auburn?
 
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