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.