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Pea-green boats on a wine-dark sea: Spinning the colour wheel of English


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Pea-green boats on a wine-dark sea: Spinning the colour wheel of English
by Susan Jellis

• Getting the exact shade
•Appropriate comparisons
       Flowers, plants and fruit
       Birds, fish and other animals
       People's appearance
       Cultural items
• Colour fashions
• Notes

'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.

Getting the exact shade

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.


Appropriate comparisons

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?

Sea, sky and grass have already been mentioned and we do often refer to the environment around us when we want to describe a shade of colour: there's midnight blue (deep blue), cloud grey (pale grey), snow white or black as night (but not *night black; very dark black). Very often the colours of metals, rocks, gems and other substances are used to pinpoint a particular shade: slate blue/grey, iron grey, jet black, old gold (a dull yellow); emerald green, ruby red, sapphire blue; pitch black, shell pink (from the pale pink of the inside of a shell), bottle green, petrol blue, brick red, blood red, chocolate brown (from the colour of milk chocolate rather than plain chocolate), eggshell blue (from the pale blue of a duck's egg). People may be described as as white as a sheet.


Flowers, plants and fruit are popular sources of comparison when trying to fix on an exact colour tone. There's bright sunflower yellow, buttercup yellow and banana yellow (it's the skin of a ripening banana that's being referred to, not the pale flesh) or pale primrose yellow or lemon yellow, for example. Among the greens there's sage green, mint green, moss green and olive green, not forgetting pea green. There's rose pink, lavender blue and cornflower blue. People may be described as as red as a beetroot (in American English as red as a beet) or as brown as a berry (though more rarely as beetroot red [US beet red] or berry brown).


Birds, fish and other animals also lend their colours to some of the more common names for different shades. There's peacock blue (from the bright colour of the breast), dove grey, canary yellow, salmon pink (from the flesh rather than the silver scales).

Choosing colour comparisons from the natural world is one way of making them reasonably universal and recognisable, even across languages, though there are pitfalls, as we've seen already with the example of banana yellow and others above – what is the comparison being made with? Even within English there are traps; take robin's egg blue, a pale blue similar to the colour of the egg of an American robin. An English robin has a white egg with brown speckles, so the colour reference makes no sense in the UK. A rather similar colour is called duck egg blue in British English.


Some shades are reserved for describing people's appearance and hair or skin: there's snow white, used of hair, nut brown, used of sunburnt skin, and milk white and lily white, used in a literary style to describe pale skin colour.


When the colour comparison moves from the natural world to cultural items, the comparison may not travel well between cultures. Navy blue seems to have become the colour of navy uniforms round the world, and royal blue (and royal purple) refer to deep colours that were associated with royalty because they were expensive to produce and rare in the past. Cambridge blue (a light blue) and Oxford blue (a dark blue) may have travelled abroad with former overseas alumni, but RAF blue (a light blue-grey, the colour of Royal Air Force uniforms) is unlikely to be well known elsewhere. Americans will be more familiar with school bus yellow than with pillar box red (and, in fact, pillar boxes may be other colours in parts of the British Isles). Blaze orange is probably a more familiar description in America than the UK for the colour to wear if you want to be seen, as are the colours swamp green, Dodger blue and Navajo white.


Colour fashions

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.



1 A colour wheel is a circular diagram that shows a set of colours.
2 The Macmillan English Dictionary defines shade (sense 3) and tone (sense 5) as a particular form or type of a colour; hue is a more literary word meaning something similar.