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Five Shades of Grey? Colours and their connotations

Five Shades of Grey? Colours and their connotations

There used to be nothing erotic about grey. Until E. L. James it was, for me, the colour of John Major’s underpants because that’s how Steve Bell always drew them in his cartoons for the British newspaper The Guardian. Grey is the colour of brains (grey matter) but I don’t think that’s the point of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Red, blue, yellow, or green? The suggestive spectrum

Red is a different matter, especially when it’s lit up. A red light marked a brothel, so the red-light district of a town is where one might expect to find love for sale. Nevertheless red has a strong presence in the not-for-profit regions of the sexual spectrum. A huge bunch of roses makes it clear where you stand and there is only one colour those roses can be. Valentine’s Day hearts are red and Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red is the archetypal romantic vision, at least for some.

A holiday with blue sea and blue sky will always go down well, but be sure you know your partner before suggesting anything else blue. It’s a bit of a puzzle how blue came to mean pornographic. Some people think it’s to do with rude bits being blue pencilled. Certainly editors used blue pencils when Victorian clubmen were guffawing over blue stories, but that was for things like split infinitives: it’s not clear that there was any connection with censorship until much later.

Sulphur—the stuff of hell—burns with a blue flame, so this could provide the original link with lust.

Or it might be the blue dresses that imprisoned prostitutes were once forced to wear, but this practice seems to have stopped a long time before blue was used to indicate anything sexual.

In France, from the 17th to the 19th century, itinerant booksellers used to tout cheap books with blue paper covers, la bibliothèque bleue. They sold well. The books had a high moral tone which makes it less likely that they were the ones who put the blue into blue movie, but facts don’t always lead us down the right etymological path. Before it got involved with friesFrench was a synonym for saucy, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (think of French kiss, French knickers, and French letter), the period of la fin de siècle and la belle époque, exactly the time when the sexual sense of blue really got going. Perhaps the English assumed, without checking, that the French must be reading about heaving bosoms and torn camisoles and the colour of their books became generic.

Yellow can be a romantic colour. If your loved one spends a spell away you might welcome them home with a yellow ribbon, perhaps tied around an old oak tree. And, becoming more risqué, there’s the itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini.

Green is, for the most part, and especially now, entirely wholesome, the colour of allotments, roof insulation, and putting out the recycling – something to do when the passion fades. Green does, however, conjure up the spectre of jealousy, the green-eyed monster.

Spelling: a gray/grey area

Coming to grey, let’s start with the gray/grey controversy. Dr Johnson plumped for gray in his dictionary. James Murray, writing the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, reached the dilemma in November 1893 and, as he often did, he asked a lot of people. It turned out that whereas The Times used gray and Messrs. Spottiswoode stuck to grey, most used one or the other as the fancy took them. Some artists used the ‘E’ spelling to mean a pure mix of black and white, with the ‘A’ being kept for something warmer, grey with a little red mixed in.

The most sensible thing to say now is that there is no difference in meaning between the two. In the United States most people use gray, and everywhere else it tends to be grey. You really can use whichever you like. E. L. James has gone for grey, but then, she’s British.

Fifty Shades?

There are lots of words for the shades of red, carmine, crimson, scarlet, burnt sienna, vermilion; and for blue, aquamarine, azure, cerulean, cobalt, turquoise, and many more. I could probably get each list up to fifty, easily if I included things like lobster-red and sky-blue. For grey we have a poorer vocabulary. Beyond a few simple modifiers—dove-grey, battleship-grey, pearl-grey—all I can think of are cinereous and cinereal, both meaning ash-coloured. There’s a grey bird called the Great Cinereous Shrike, but I’ve never seen one.

Grey used to mean boring, which is why, unkindly, it became John Major’s colour. Now that Fifty Shades has forged new connections it will be interesting to see if these are lexicographically productive. Going grey may one day be rather more fun than it is at the moment, although it’s always going to be painful.

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