The languages of the world used to be a pretty drab. As linguist Guy Deutscher explains in his book Through The Language Glass, our ancestors – somehow – managed to make do with barely any words for the colours. The Ancient Greeks, for example, didn’t even have a word for blue. In his epic poetry, Homer instead refers to the “wine dark” sea and “wine-looking” oxen. In the evolution of languages across the globe, the development of our various colour lexicons have followed a similar path. Black and white tend to come first, then red, then yellow. Then comes green, and finally blue.
But, of course, the development hasn’t stopped there. As the societies we live in have become more complex, successive generations have demanded more and more names for the various hues, tints, shades and mixtures around them. The linguistic labels needed have come from a variety of sources. Taupe, for example, comes from the French for mole. Orange comes from the name of the fruit. Sienna, umber and magenta are all derived from place names.
As a result – from amber and cyan to silver and teal – the English language is now a very colourful one indeed. It contains enough colour words, surely, to keep ten Turners happy.
Not, it seems, if you are selling emulsion.
If you’ve ever visited a reasonably sized home improvement store (and, like me, come out confused, exhausted and clutching a pot of magnolia) you’ll know exactly what I mean. On the shelves you will find a seemingly endless array of colours, covering every inch of the colour spectrum, from Apple Blossom to Whipped Cream.
Dulux (one of the world’s largest paint manufacturers), for example, lists a mind-boggling 565 different paint varieties on their website. Although we’ve come a long way from Homer and the Ancient Greeks, there definitely aren’t 565 colour words in the English dictionary. It’s clear that Dulux’s branding department is home to some pretty creative people – and not just with different shades of paint, but with language too.
So how do you go about inventing that many names for shades of emulsion? Being the linguist that I am, I thought I’d do a quick corpus analysis of Dulux’s range to investigate. Here’s what I found out:
- Only 14 of the names comprise a single word, such as Conker, Butterdish and Black (reassuringly, there is just plain old black), and only one of them comprises three (Pure Brilliant White). Since combinations (of words as much as of paints) are at the heart of creativity, it’s perhaps not surprising that rest of the names are all made up of two words.
- In terms of their syntax, just over half of the two-word combinations (316) are formed of an adjective and a (head) noun, such as Perfect Praline and Mystic Mauve. Most of the others (225) are compound nouns, like Flame Frenzy, Orchid Opera, Bongo Jazz, formed by two nouns placed side by side.
- It’s perhaps not surprising that many (97) of the head nouns are colour words themselves. Within Dulux’s range there are 44 shades of “blue”, 25 shades of “purple”, and 26 shades of “green”. Somewhat disappointingly, however, there are only 9 shades of “grey”. Many of the colours are modified by place names, for example, Oxford Blue and Pamplona Purple.
- But that still means that 80% of the paint varieties don’t have dictionary colours as a head noun. It would obviously be difficult to sell 565 variations of Rich Black, Salsa Red, and so on.
- Assigning some basic semantic categories (like “flora”, “fauna”, and so on) to each of the component words, it’s interesting to see what other concepts and physical objects Dulux’s branding department have generally tried to conjure up for us. After lexicalised colour words, the next most common category is “flora”. 75 of the paint varieties refer to trees, plants and fruit of all kind, from Olive Grove to Heather Bloom. There are also a few (15) varieties of fauna, from humble Field Mouse to Proud Peacock. Why bother leaving the house when you can bring the great outdoors to your feature wall?
- The next most common category (56 paint varieties) is “food”. Rock Candy, Nougat Slice, Melon Sorbet and Whipped Cream, for example, are surely the stuff of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Another 16 paint colours relate to drinks, some more tempting than others. Anyone for a Sincere Brew?
- Also well represented are the basic elements. There are 53 paint names relating to the category “earth”, 41 in the category “water”, 16 in the category “air”, and 6 in the category “fire”. In the latter, how about Warm Graphite, Marbled Sands, and even Creative Coal? Relating to “water”, Delicate Seashell and Teal Ripple, anyone?
- As you might expect there are some poetic images in there, conjuring up some deliberately wistful moods (indeed, there is even a Wistful Mauve). How about Lost Lake, Undiscovered Forest and Porcelain Solitude in your living room?
- But as well as the poetic, there’s also the down right ludicrous – from Intrepid Cave and Sapphire Salute, to Narrow Lane and Overtly Olive.
- Talking about poetry, there are certainly quite a few rhetorical figures among the names. Around a fifth (107) – such as African Adventure, Blue Breeze and Curious Crimson – involve alliteration.
- And finally, four of them (Russian Rouge, Blush Noisette, Blue Belle, Citron Sunrise) involve code-switching to French – no doubt to add a certain Gallic je ne sais quoi.
Whether or not it’s possible to tell the difference between Classic Black, Rich Black and (just plain old) Black, coming up with 565 different names for paint is certainly creative work, linguistically speaking.
Dulux, I raise my paint roller to you!
I’m always quite entertained by paint names when I have to pick out colours. In the last round of renos, I got Purple Polka, Sage Mist, and Dusty Rose. (I think they were Behr brand…?) This was a fun read. Thanks!
Don’t drift into magnolia too early in life! Isn’t there a Cambridge blue you could take to?
I feel compelled to take some of those names and slap them onto my characters now. Thank you!
Very good analysis. I once analysed colour-related articles in one of the Russian dictionaries as there were many unusual combinations. This led to a table of colour combinations (colours in the first column and their qualifier, usually some adjective, in the second). I also tried to find English equivalents to as many as I could, while my friend did the same with French equivalents. The result is here – http://samaralife.com/zapiski-lingvista-magiya-slova-i-tsveta/. It is not some thorough analysis like yours, but the table includes so many colours and shades that normal people wouldn’t even know in their average usage.