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Culture

What’s in a Color Name?

Believe it or not, they have power. Kassia St Clair explores the world behind color names, from Tudor England's "lustie-gallant" to Essie's "Bikini So Teeny."

gif of a name tag with rotating color names and corresponding colors
Gif by Melanie Lambrick

While we might believe that evocative color names are a peculiarity of our own times, this is emphatically not the case. The nomenclature favored in Tudor England during the sixteenth century, for example, is probably best described as earthy. “Puke,” as well as being a kind of woolen fabric, was a mid-brown; “horsefleshe-color” was a pinkish-brown, while “lustie-gallant” was a dashing pale red. And while no one is precisely sure what “dead Spaniard” looked like, “goose-turd green” remains self-explanatory. Eighteenth-century France also had a full complement of deliciously evocative hues, including “great reputation,” “indiscreet complaints,” and “the vapours.” (Sadly, knowledge of what these actually looked like has been lost.) Such examples make “millennial pink” — a pallid tint with plenty of yellow undertones and the current darling of the color-naming world — seem rather on the nose.

Attempting to pin colors to names has a long history, even outside of the fashion world. At the very end of the seventeenth century, a Dutch artist called A. Boogert created a volume filled with more than 800 hand-painted swatches, glossed with descriptions in spidery handwriting. At that time, cataloguing all known colors was easier than it is now. There were relatively few reliable, stable colorants available to artists, decorators, and dyers. Since the nineteenth century, however, they have multiplied exponentially. Such choice has obvious advantages but has also led to unexpected difficulties: with innumerable colors on offer, communicating precise tints, shades, and hues has become harder.

It is, however, of vital importance commercially. A designer in Sydney may be happy to communicate a precise color to a manufacturer in Taiwan using an anodyne code or reference, but that name is highly unlikely to appeal to buyers. To do that, descriptive and imaginative names are needed. Although this might seem intuitive, there is also research to back it up. Color names associated with something positive or appealing were found to influence consumers to buy. Researchers in 2006 found that people preferred colors given expressive names — such as “mocha” — over plainly named ones — like “mid-brown” — even when the colors themselves were identical. Furthermore, they were more likely to buy products (and for a higher price) when they were labeled “ocean” and “sage” rather than boring old blue and green. From a commercial standpoint, then, it pays to get creative.

This is something Leatrice Eiseman — executive director of the Pantone Color Institute and the woman responsible for picking Pantone’s Color of the Year — knows only too well. A well-chosen name, in her words, helps to “glamorize, strategize, romanticize, or tantalize the targeted consumer”: music to a marketer’s ears. How is this done in practice at Pantone? With great care and by committee. After deciding on the colors that need to be added to the system, appropriate names are selected based on the mood or feeling that such a name will create. A blue-green, Eiseman says, might be called “lagoon” because of the hidden promise it contains of an exotic holiday location, while a bright blue might be called “skydiver,” a name redolent of adventure and excitement.

Emotional, fun connections are also important for nail-polish brand Essie. A series of specially commissioned short films, available on YouTube, give a flavor of the myriad inspirations that can go into naming polishes. Recent examples include “Backseat Besties” — named after a girls’ road trip — and “New Year, New Hue” — a rich, holiday-season magenta. Sometimes the names contribute to the success of the varnish with consumers: “Bikini So Teeny,” a lilac blue, caused a buzz when it launched in 2012 because of the memorable name.

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Another company famed for its color names is Farrow & Ball, a small British firm specializing in ritzy wallpapers and paints. Its approach is both more personal and more scattergun. “Drop Cloth,” another term for the dust sheets used by painters and decorators, was picked for a hardworking beige. The pumpkin-spice hair of the company’s head of creative, Charlotte Cosby, inspired “Charlotte’s Locks,” while a daughter’s rosy cheeks lent a true pink to the name “Nancy’s Blushes.” Despite the firm’s freedom in choosing names, and the vital importance given to colors themselves, such names are a core part of its brand identity. Although usually the color comes first, as at Pantone, very occasionally it happens the other way around. More subtly — a point for true Farrow & Ball connoisseurs — the firm works to make sure that colors that pair especially well together have names that reflect this relationship. “Cord” and “String,” for example, are both yellow-based neutrals reminiscent of the color of twine, while “Ammonite” and “Purbeck Stone” are cool, natural grays inspired by the scenery of the Dorset coast and the Isle of Purbeck in England.

Color names, however, can be a hindrance as well as a help. Nearly two and a half centuries after A. Boogert’s book was created, Aloys Maerz and Morris Paul published their Dictionary of Color in New York in 1930. Their vision was to do for color what the lexicographer Samuel Johnson had done for words. Created over eighteen months, their book, which you can still find secondhand, includes pages of color swatches in grids and an index of names at the back. One of the reasons it took them so long was that the names proved slippery, varying wildly over time and place, and even from person to person. “Taupe” was a prime example. The word is actually French for “mole,” so the color should have been rodent-colored, or “a deep grey on the cold side.” Instead, it had been applied to all manner of shades, from brown to cream to gray. Determined to put an end to such a lack of discipline, Maerz and Paul toured zoological specimens of moles, finally including in their book a gray that was “a correct match for the average actual color of the French mole.”

Perhaps if Messrs. Maerz and Paul had read the work of Samuel Johnson a little more clearly, they might have been more relaxed about the precise color of taupe. Johnson was well aware that language evolved as people used it. “To enchain syllables,” he wrote, was like trying “to lash the wind.” Colors and their names are the same. For the sake of accuracy, we could, of course, give up on names and use RGB references or Pantone numbers instead, but where would the charm be in that? Names endow colors with an emotional charge, personality, and a sense of time and place. True, you are unlikely to ever want to paint your nails “goose-turd green” or the walls of your home “dead Spaniard,” but if nothing else, they offer a window into the humor and tastes of Tudor England.

Kassia St Clair is the author of The Secret Lives of Color and a design journalist based in London.