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boats on a wine-dark sea: Spinning the colour wheel of
by Susan Jellis
'The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat' is such a famous line of poetry that the term pea-green is a very familiar one to English speakers, even though it is not a frequently used description for a shade of yellowish green and is not a colour often thought of as 'beautiful'. It captures two of the issues that arise in describing colour pinpointing the exact shade and a personal response to colour.
Describing a colour to another person is difficult, especially at the edges of the colour range – your brown is my grey, my blue is your green. It is even more difficult across languages and cultures, and even across the centuries, as the conventions for where one colour stops and another starts may differ. Homer's description of the colour of the sea, given in the famous translation as 'wine-dark', is hard to associate with the typical colours of wine or the sea as we regard them today.
Describing the exact shade, hue or tone of one of the basic colours is even more difficult. The Macmillan English Dictionary includes some of the commonly used terms for shades of colour, but there are very many in everyday use.
In trying to be precise, you can start simply by adding light or pale to a colour that is less intense and dark or deep for one that is more intense than what is generally regarded as usual. For colours between the two extremes, you might use mid-, e.g. mid-blue, or medium.
However, if light blue isn't specific or attractive enough for you, you may have to get more creative. Ice, powder and baby are sometimes used instead of pale with the colour blue; blush and dusty are similarly used with pink to indicate a pale shade and fiery with red or orange to describe an intensity of colour.
Then there is an added dimension of whether you like the colour or not: a bright, bold, rich, vivid, or vibrant colour is a strong colour that you like, but a harsh, loud or stark colour is one that you don't like. A soft, pastel, muted, subdued, delicate or mellow colour is a pale colour that you like, but a dull, insipid or wishy-washy colour is not one that is attractive to you.
Shades of colour are often described by comparison with a point of reference in the external world. There are some standard comparisons, but even they can be puzzling – it may be obvious why we say something is sky blue but why is it more often sea green than sea blue? In the UK, *sea grey might often be more appropriate but we don't choose to use it. We say as green as grass but not *as blue as sky. How do we choose our comparisons?
In the world of fashion, in clothes, cars or even household paint, the terms used to describe shades of colour are more to do with the subjective impression they create in the buyer than any attempt at exactness of shade. The choice of names for colours is very wide, idiosyncratic and not easily predictable, e.g., from a paint chart, mineral haze (a pale grey) or seventh heaven (a dark cream). In paint, white 'with a hint of …' colour has become popular, for example barley white describes white with a hint of beige or apple white, white with a slightly green tone, the names suggesting a warm or a fresh colour rather than stark white.
Colour descriptions can also fall out of fashion. Only older people might now refer to Alice blue, RAF blue or donkey brown. What dress would be described in next month's fashion pages as ashes of roses (a greyish pink) or eau-de-nil (a light green)? Nowadays young children in school asked to match black with another word on a list often cannot recognise that coal is the word they are looking for – they've probably never seen coal to know what colour it is or heard the terms coal black or black as coal. Shocking pink has lasted from the mid-20th century, but its companion electric blue (a bright, vivid blue) is now rare.
So when you come to spin the colour wheel to choose a colour, you have a wide choice of traditional names for particular shades of colour that many people will recognise and share, but also the freedom to be creative and choose any comparison that meets your fancy, though then you may run the risk of being misunderstood.
wheel is a circular diagram that shows a set of colours.