The Allure of Color Terms


I’m a little fascinated by the specific names for colors that are chosen in clothing and home furnishing catalogs (both online and paper). It would be fun to collect some of these catalogs over the past fifty years and see what changes have occurred in the color terms that are used.  The terms need to be informative of course, but a small inventory of basic color terms would suffice for that purpose. The catalog’s purpose is to persuade the prospective buyer to purchase something, and the choice of color terms can help. Knowing who the buyers are probably shapes these choices — are they gals, guys, outdoorsy, haute couture, teens, baby boomers, etc.. Are the terms chosen to validate and reflect current broader trends in society? Why is it that certain decorating colors come into style and then go out? Is there a parallel process occurring with color terms?  Here is a sampling of color terms I’ve encounteres in recent women’s fashion catalogs and mid-market (yuppie, not luxury) home decor catalogs to describe colors in the basic categories of ‘light green’, ‘medium green’, ‘light blue’ and ‘medium blue’.

  • light green: celery, fennel, kiwi, sea glass, lettuce, grass, sage.
  • medium green: basil, caper, moss, fern, chive, leaf, stem green.
  • light blue: pool, lagoon, mineral blue, sky, sea mist, oasis.
  • medium blue: wave, aegean, peacock, blueberry, chalk blue.

Nature is appearing heavily in these terms as basic forms and elements — and a lot of edible plants! These choices may reflect the current interest in eco-friendly living and organic whole food diets with an emphasis on vegetables. These are chic veggies, mind you, ‘basil’ ‘fennel’ and ‘grass’ (did you know sugarcane is a grass?). Are there unchic vegetables and fruits that wouldn’t make the grade? Would a green fabric cover in ‘pickle’ be appealing, or a light beige sweater in ‘potato’? What about curtains in ‘gooseberry’?   For yellow the terms ‘lemon’, ‘butter’, ‘tumeric’, ‘cumin’, and ‘sunflower’ are acceptable, but I haven’t seen ‘egg yolk’ or ‘sulfur’.  The references to nature are kept general; ‘mineral blue’ sounds like some interesting rock that you admire on an outcrop during a mountain hike, so does ‘azurite’. Doesn’t that sound like an earthy gem?  The chosen names today avoid references to industrial processes, somehow ‘mineral’ is a good word and ‘chemical’ is a bad one; ‘copper hydroxl carbonate’ won’t be replacing ‘azurite’ any time soon (they are the same substance). Copper sulfate is a gorgeous blue, but probably won’t make the cut either, as a fashion term.

Animal terms for colors don’t seem as popular as in earlier decades – it’s less common to see ‘oxblood’ as a term for ‘dark red’ nowadays, and one doesn’t see ‘heron blue’ or ‘kingfisher blue’ much. What about ‘fawn’ for ‘light beige’ and ‘dove’ for ‘light gray’? I think they are less common than they used to be. Men’s clothing may point to a whole different cluster of terms, and cars and electronic gadgetry may lead to yet others, perhaps less earthy and more techno in the images they conjure. One fairly recent term I’ve seen for men’s jeans and women’s sportswear is ‘storm’. It’s a kind of dark gray and I love the word – who knew an event could serve as a color term?

I’ll end the post with a few suggestions of my own.

  • eclipse – dark bluish-black
  • summer – bright golden yellow
  • passion – deep, ruby red
  • hurricane – blue w/graygreen
  • meditation – deep emerald green

Catalogs, feel free to use these. 🙂

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