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Drunk tank pink? International Klein blue? Charting the outer-reaches of the colour spectrum

As Katherine Shaw noted in a rather colourful article for this blog, the origins of the English primary colour names are ultimately either non-referential, in that they aren’t derived from the colour of some previously known entity, or have such long histories that their origins are simply unknown. This, she notes, is in contrast with secondary and tertiary colours, which tend to have more evocative etymologies. Prime examples are the colour names violet and orange, which appeared long after the names of the flower and fruit.

Aside from flora, many secondary and tertiary colours have names derived from animals (fawn, camel), elements (cobalt, silver, copper), minerals (pumice, slate), or the cities in which their dyes were originally produced (sienna, magenta). These names are not only evocative, but practical: by denoting observable objects whose colours remain constant, each name gives speakers a reference point, which prevents our conceptualization of a colour from shifting over time.

But what happens when less-common colour names give us no precise point of reference?

Auburn has existed in English since the 15th century, when it came as a loanword from Middle French. At this time, both languages used the name to refer to something akin to today’s off-white. Over time, given the lack of a codified spelling system in English, variants on the name soon began to emerge. One such alternative was abraun, which is thought to have led to an association with brownness, leading to the word today denoting a darker hue.

There are also cases of colour names undergoing significant semantic change over time. Originally, the adjectival sense of drab referred only to a dull light-brown (think Vietnam War era military equipment). Assumedly because of its nondescriptness, a new sense of the word has since been born: the most common contemporary usage of drab describes any entity whose appearance is lifeless and dull.

A light-brownish yellow, buff derives its name from the average colour of buff leather. As buff leather largely disappeared from the shelves a couple of hundred years ago, the term fell into disuse, taking with it our conceptualization of the colour. Today, buff is more common in two colloquialisms derived from it. First is the chiefly British phrase in the buff, meaning nude, which evokes the buff colour of the average naked Brit. Second is a buff (meaning expert or enthusiast, as in film buff), which evolved from late 19th-century New York volunteer fire-watchers, whose light-brown uniforms earned them the nickname of ‘fire buffs’.

Coming full spectrum

But what happens when we leave the well-documented tertiary colours behind, and enter the truly expanded universe of colour nomenclature? In short, among members of this largely unstudied group, occasionally referred to as the quaternary colours, etymologies are delightfully abstruse.

Drunk tank pink is a far catchier synonym for Baker-Miller pink – a colour formulated in the late 1960s by psychologist Alexander Schauss in an effort to induce a feeling of calm. A decade later, two Seattle prison directors, Baker and Miller, agreed to paint their facility’s drunk tanks pink, as a real-world test of Schauss’ theory. In one sense, the project was a success: incoming inebriates appeared more subdued during the initial phase of their lock-up. That said, the success was far from absolute: detainees were observed attempting to scratch the colour off the walls with their fingernails after being locked up for fifteen minutes or so.

Researchers at John Hopkins University have recently coined cosmic latte, the name for that which they have somehow deemed the ‘average colour of the universe’. It is also, as the name suggests, the average colour of a cafe latte. Rather than checking their work, I propose we take their word for it.

Though rare, there are a handful of colours named in homage to a single celebrity. International Klein blue bears the name of the French artist, Yves Klein, who claims to have first mixed it. At the other end of the blue spectrum is Alice blue, named in honour of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who popularized the colour as a fashion choice after donning it for her father’s presidential inauguration in 1905.

New names are also coined by companies whose products bear the colour. Barbie pink or Tiffany blue may be the most recognizable, but colour names for even discontinued products may remain viable for some time: Bondi blue, referencing the Australian surf beach, was the official name of the Blue iMac my parents refused to buy me when I was nine.

Sports teams and universities also compete for name-ownership of their emblematic colour. Yankees blue or Giants orange may be recognisable even to those who have never seen a baseball game. Cambridge, North Carolina, Columbia, and Duke each claim tiny plots within the sub-spectrum of blue.

The military also wields some influence, from navy blue, denoting the longstanding uniform of British and U.S. Navies, to feldgrau, the grey colour of German military uniforms during both world wars. Camouflage colours have a tendency to be named after their inventors, as is Mountbatten pink, designed by Louis Mountbatten in 1940 to camouflage British battleships during dawn and dusk. Though the name lives on, the military strategy was short-lived: by 1944 it had become apparent that the ships were rather perilously conspicuous during, well, all other hours of the day.

Finally, there are quaternary colours whose origins remain a mystery: one popular folk etymology states that Isabella (or isabelline), a greyish yellow, refers to Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain, and her apparent vow not to wash her underwear until the end of the siege of Ostend. Sadly, this explanation has been proven apocryphal by the Oxford English Dictionary, which cites an occurrence of the word from 1600—a year before the siege began.

Considering colour compellations

As a final thought, it is interesting to consider what we have to gain from these coinages, when it is obvious that our cognitive limits prevent us from ever utilizing even a small fraction in everyday parlance. Most apparent, of course, are the benefits for corporations attempting to foster brand recognition, or universities or sports clubs, whose colour names legitimize and increase their perceived eminence.

But this doesn’t account for Alice blue, or cosmic latte. Why not? Because there’s a little more to colour naming than meets the eye. For me, just like hitting a nail on the head, a well-named colour is a deeply and intrinsically satisfying thing. To name a colour is to marry the world of language and the world of vision. To talk about colours is to demonstrate that we as humans share common perceptions and realities. From drunk tank pink to international Klein blue, colour nomenclature brings a sense of understanding, order and appreciation to a dizzyingly kaleidoscopic world.

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