Notes on Colour

naming colours

Names for colours

Colour names are notoriously ambiguous. The illustration sets out the names used in these notes. I don’t claim this usage is correct—it’s not quite the everyday usage—but at least I’m reasonably consistent.

The main names—red, green, blue, cyan, magenta and yellow—have standard meanings in photography, computing and printing. These meanings have become common since colour printers became readily available for domestic use. Now printing inks are sold at supermarkets labelled as cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

Historically, colour names had more to do with the origin of a pigment than with the colour it eventually produced!1,3 Traces of this tradition remain today in the language painters use. For example, burnt sienna doesn’t look burnt—it’s called burnt because the colour is produced by heating the sienna pigment.2

There’s a vast array of colour names in the technical languages of painting and fashion. There are many compound colour names in plain English—rose red, navy blue, red-brown and so on. There are common words that indicate both the colour and other surface qualities—bronze, copper, gold and silver for example. Frequently the name of a thing is used as a shorthand for the colour of the thing, for example amber, apricot, bone, cerise (French for cherry), cream, ebony, emerald, saffron, ivory, lavender, lilac, peach and rust. The choice of things is subject to the whims of fashion.

I can’t think of many simple colour names in everyday English. Azure, beige, black, blue, brown, crimson, cyan, dun, ginger, green, grey, indigo, khaki, magenta, maroon, mauve, orange, pink, puce, purple, red, russet, scarlet, sepia, tan, taupe, tawny, teal, turquoise, vermilion, violet, white, and yellow are all I could manage. All of those names are ambiguous (some more than others). I wonder why almost a third of them are types of brown.

Some early linguistic research indicated eleven basic colour categories in humans languages—white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange and grey. This is a reasonably accurate observation but more recent research has, of course, uncovered more subtleties and more complications.

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