Monday, June 15, 2009

Colour Language: 1904

We have a colour language, but it is not accurate. We all begin our existence by feeling an interest only in self, and by taking the mouth as our centre. And even when, grown older, we show an interest in the doings of our neighbours and the aspect of things near us, we still give evidence that our own mouth is our starting point of interest and comparison. Take up a book of sample papers, and observe the names you give to the colours. “This is lemon colour,” you say; “and here is cream colour, and blue, and crushed strawberry. And that is biscuit colour, and here are orange, cherry colour, and chocolate.” You may not mention “salmon colour” or “oatmeal,” or “applegreen,” &c., yet, almost certainly, many of your colour names will be taken from the orchard and the larder. We note this tendency even in Chaucer, who said that one thing was “as white as Maine bread,” and another “as green as a leek.” The simple woman, then, and the great poet make colour names by comparison, and very good and forcible names they are. But we do not stop here. Fashionable dressmakers have given us a new vocabulary, and many of their names appear to have their origin in mere caprice. They change so rapidly, too, that we cannot be sure very long of their meaning. “Réséda” was once green. Now it is a kind of blue. Ecru may mean one thing to one person – another thing to other persons. It would be just as reasonable to teach a perishing dialect, instead of the English language, as to teach this new colour vocabulary of an hour.
Education Through the Imagination, 1904

excerpt from:
Elephant's Breath and London Smoke
edited by Deb Salisbury
Available at

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