There are two main ways to talk about colour. One is use language such as “rose” or “forest” and “maize” – giving us all an imaginary shade based on our memory of the colour (usually based naturally occurring shades); the other is to use the number which denotes the colour in an established colour system, eg Pantone, web colours, paint numbers or the Munsell system. I like the Munsell system, developed in the 1900s by an artist and professor of Art in Massachusetts, which recognised the three dimensions of each colour – the hue, value and chroma (in that order). He thereby designed the system that makes determining colours more rational than naming ever could. His system is still in use in selecting tooth shades, and the forensic analysis of human bodies.
For example a purple (the hue) of medium lightness (the value) and fairly saturated or bright (the chroma) would be described as 5P 5/10 with 5P meaning the colour in the middle of the purple hue band, 5/ meaning medium value (lightness), and a chroma of 10. If we were giving this colour a name it might be called Violet, Lilac or Lavender, or indeed Merry Berry, or Sugar Plum or whatever you like.
Names are of course very evocative – I heard that Revlon’s pinky-red lipstick called “Cherries in the Snow” is a best seller due to its wonderful name. Conversely I have a joke with my friend Alison that the colours that suit her best are mould, bruise and sludge. As a child I remember my brother James refusing to wear a colour my mother called “donkey brown” – he said it was “poo” coloured.
There are certain colours, or combinations of colours, that I cannot abide. For example I have always associated maroon and yellow with scabs and pus (sorry!). Colours, let’s face it, have huge emotional content and meaning for all of us. And their names are associated with our feelings. A friend who has the lovely job of naming the clothes in her company’s collection came up with “ginger nut” for a shade of orangey-brown. Hmmm. No wonder the world needed a numbering system to take all the feeling out of naming colours. I can imaginatively distinguish between mandarin and orange; mint, jade and sea green, but my mint may be your jade. Clearly we need a more scientific approach.
As an aside I wonder why some things are known by their numbers -cameras, cars, computers, mobile phones. And other things have names like Jessica or Peace – women’s clothes, shoes, flowers, lipsticks – for example?