Oh he's got blue eyes, oh he's got green eyes, oh he's got gray eyes...
September 3, 2006 6:38 AM   Subscribe

Have the meanings of words referring to colours changed?

I remember learning in university that many words have switched or radically changed meaning over time, and one example was a colour - I think it was blue - which used to be called by the name we now call another colour (I think pink). Did I dream this? Is there actually a colour name which has changed meaning over time?
posted by joannemerriam to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The semiotics of blue and pink have changed, and the change was fairly recent—around 1950.

Before then, pink was for boys, and light blue was for girls (which might explain why both Dorothy and Alice were depicted in blue pinafores). A "think pink" advertising campaign in the fifties created the perception of pink as a girly color.

It's also possible that the meanings of the words changed at some point, but I'm not aware of it.
posted by adamrice at 7:13 AM on September 3, 2006

I was told once (maybe back in art school?) that before Coca-Cola, if you asked someone to define "red" they'd pick something we'd call vermillion now (toward the purple, away from the orange...). The pervasiveness of the brand has shifted the very definition of red...

I can't find any citations, though, and am just relying on my bad memory...
posted by jpburns at 7:21 AM on September 3, 2006

I seem to remember colors meaning different things in Chaucer's time. There are phrases like "eyes as gray as glas" which, according to my professor, we don't know what color they refer to.
posted by danb at 7:37 AM on September 3, 2006

Purple used to refer to the crimson dye obtained from a mollusc (murex or purpura); in the Middle Ages it was used to refer to various reddish hues, and only in modern times has it come to refer to a mixture of red and blue. Its older meaning survives in the expression "the purple," referring to the crimson robes of a Roman Catholic cardinal or a monarch.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:41 AM on September 3, 2006

The primary colors have had the same names, for as long as I can remember.
posted by ken1247 at 7:45 AM on September 3, 2006

Well, the "colors" grue and bleen changed six years ago, according to many philosophy courses taught long before that time.

Sort of. If you weren't paying much attention.
posted by dmd at 7:52 AM on September 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

here is an interesting link.

what song is your title from? it's killing me.
posted by sdn at 7:53 AM on September 3, 2006

New Order's Temptation, right?
posted by viewofdelft at 8:05 AM on September 3, 2006

Look up Berlin and Kay. I've linked the first google result but there's a lot of books, articles, journals, etc about some related work.
posted by neustile at 8:49 AM on September 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is a very interesting thread -- great question! It seems to me that the ability to see certain types of red is genetically determined. For example, my mother's idea of red was more on the orange side, whereas my idea of red is more on the purple side. Her idea of "red" was very broad and many things I would NEVER consider red were very red to her. I seem to remember reading about his phenomenon somewhere. But, as jpburns said above, I may be relying on bad memory. But it's certainly true that everyone's idea of red and blue can be quite different. One's ability to see blue deteriorates with age (which is why blue-haired old ladies don't know they have blue hair). I would be interested in seeing more discussion on this topic. Again, thanks for the post!
posted by Lockjaw at 9:39 AM on September 3, 2006

I have heard of adamrice's pink-and-blue switch elsewhere, but have not received confirmation from older people I've asked about this. (The way I heard it, pink was more manly because it's a tint of red, and blood-red of course is masculine. Also, the switch occurred longer ago than the 1950s, more like the WWI era, or before.)

Another data-point for a discussion like this is how the Japanese consider green to be a shade of blue (or maybe that's vice-versa).
posted by Rash at 9:49 AM on September 3, 2006

Sinople is my favorite color word. It means both green and red, and the meaning has switched over time. Kind of obscure, though (yes, I wrote most of the Wikipedia article).
posted by dreamyshade at 9:56 AM on September 3, 2006

New Order's Temptation, right?

Yes, although when I looked the lyrics up just now to be sure, it's "you" not "he" whose eyes are being described.
posted by joannemerriam at 10:03 AM on September 3, 2006

Another data-point for a discussion like this is how the Japanese consider green to be a shade of blue (or maybe that's vice-versa).
This is an interesting thing.

In contemporary usage, "aoi" and "midori" are quite close to "blue" and "green," respectively. But in the past, "aoi" covered both these meanings, while "midori" was used for a very specific shade (like we would use "aqua" or "vermilion" or "mustard"). The old meaning of "aoi" still persists in referring to unripe things as "aoi" (i.e., green)--and the plot of an episode of the anime Detective Conan turned on the fact that an elderly crime witness called the criminal's green jacket "aoi."
posted by Jeanne at 10:07 AM on September 3, 2006

dmd's answer sounds like a joke, but I think it's probably what you're remembering, joannemerriam. The Wikipedia article reads a little densely, but the gist is, grue and bleen are both words for the colors blue and green, as they're remembered or recognized by people over time. At some times in the past, the color blue as we know it now, used to be green. Back then, it was "grue," but now it's blue. (The whole line of argument is philosophical and relates to the way people perceive color. It's not actually supposed to have happened in history; it's a way to think about thinking about color.)
posted by cgc373 at 10:52 AM on September 3, 2006

What Jeanne said. Green traffic lights are also "aoi" thought definitely the same green color I'm used to in the US. (Though some places in the US do have blue-ish "green" lights.

Oh great, now I'm confused. . .
posted by Ookseer at 10:53 AM on September 3, 2006

From what I've read, languages tend to develop more complex color names over time, but when they are young, with fewer color names, they'll have a name for "cold colors" and "hot colors." You see a trace of this in Japanese, which has only four color names that are really adjectival: kuro, shiro, aka, ao (black, white, red, blue). These are the most primal color names still, and ao still is used to cover the range of cold colors in many contexts. I remember reading somewhere that the Welsh language has an equivalent word.

The other color names in Japanese are derived from nouns, and we have something equivalent to this in English with orange (the color is named for the fruit, which comes to us from Arabic by way of Spanish). The Japanese word for orange is (of course) orenji-iro, which comes from the English.
posted by adamrice at 11:10 AM on September 3, 2006

I seem to remember colors meaning different things in Chaucer's time.

I'm pretty sure this is what I am thinking of. I have this idea that there was a colour name which changed meaning much the way words like nice and slut have changed meaning. But I can't remember which colour, or find anything online about it.

The larger discussion of colour names in general is very interesting, though, and I'm enjoying reading the links. As a point of interest, at the cheque printing facility I used to work at, if a customer asked for "blue-green" or "green-blue" (or "turquoise") we used PMS 320, which is exactly half blue and half green, even though most people seem to think blue-green and green-blue are different colours.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:12 AM on September 3, 2006

There's an example of a color word changing meaning in "The Art of Looking Sideways". (I want to say it's 'scarlet', but dictionary.com thinks not. Too bad I don't have the book with me right now.)

In Chinese the word "qing" is the equivalent of the Japanese word "aoi". Once upon a time it meant 'black' as well. Confusing indeed...
posted by em at 11:19 AM on September 3, 2006

Perception of colour changes radically across cultures and history.
Colour in the Mind's Eye

When you say "blue" is your favourite colour, how do you know other people see what you see? We "see" seven major colours in the rainbow, thanks not to physics or physiology but to Isaac Newton. Some cultures name only two colours, others name three or four. The Homeric Greeks had terms that entwined colour, iridescence and speed. Some African languages differentiate the colour and pattern of the coats of cattle. Thus colours are not abstract entities but patches of fur. A spectrum of IDEAS by colour philosopher Carl Simpson.
I was of the understanding that this topic was basic when studying art history. The availability, and price, of colours has had an enormous impact on the way paintings from various eras look.
posted by Chuckles at 11:47 AM on September 3, 2006

Homer seemed to think the sea was the color of wine. Here's a random web article on his phrase "the wine-dark sea".
posted by trip and a half at 11:48 AM on September 3, 2006

Lockjaw -

You might be correct... the x chromosome carries a gene associated with red vision. Women, having two copies of x, may be able to distinguish shades of red that look identical to males.
posted by logicpunk at 11:53 AM on September 3, 2006

I believe the slight blueness in green traffic lights is to help those who are color blind.
posted by borkencode at 1:08 PM on September 3, 2006

Google Answers on pink for boys.
posted by acoutu at 1:24 PM on September 3, 2006

Homer seemed to think the sea was the color of wine. Here's a random web article on his phrase "the wine-dark sea".

Homer, of course, does not say "the wine-dark sea," he says epi óinopa pónton 'on the óinops sea,' where oinops looks like it would mean 'wine-faced' according to its apparent components, but who knows what obscure epic terms like this meant in their day, or where they came from? It may be from some Indo-European word that had been long forgotten except in this fossilized expression.

It's very likely that color words have changed in many languages (as in the Chinese and Japanese examples), but it can be hard to tell unless the change is dramatic and the language is well documented. But color words are as mutable as any others; cf. Russian krasny 'red,' which used to mean 'beautiful' (hence Krasnaya ploshchad', now "Red Square," and the krasny ugol where icons were kept in a traditional Russian house, which looks like it means 'red corner').
posted by languagehat at 1:34 PM on September 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

Ookseer writes "Green traffic lights are also 'aoi' thought definitely the same green color I'm used to in the US. (Though some places in the US do have blue-ish 'green' lights."

In my opinion, not "some" but "most", and most in Japan are also blueish. I've also heard what borkencode said, that it's to avoid problems due to red-green colorblindness. So traffic lights are called 'aoi' in Japan, which gets foreigners all annoyed. However, foreigners then say "they're green", which is just as 'wrong'. They're neither; they're blue-green.
posted by Bugbread at 3:52 PM on September 3, 2006

Hue know, color can be a very personal thing. Take a look at Wikipedia on navy blue, for example. It may be my monitor, but the swatches shown for cobalt and royal blue sure as hell don't match my mind's-eye version of those shades!
posted by rob511 at 4:02 PM on September 3, 2006

Our ability to see blue is remarkably limited; we're about 33 times more sensitive to green than to blue. Not that those ridiculously efficient blue LEDs make that obvious :)

Then there's the tetrachromes, who have four peak sensitivities instead of three.
posted by effugas at 6:05 PM on September 3, 2006

Just queried the two colorblind people I know and they say that the blue-ish traffic lights don't help. They go by position.

Not sure where you live but the new LED lights used extensively in Tokyo and San Francisco are very intensely green with no blue component. The only blue colored traffic lights I've seen are incandescents filtered through glass.

Blue light kills night-adapted vision easily and shouldn't be used in traffic situations.

At least that's how I see it, but I'm a man. . .
posted by Ookseer at 9:17 PM on September 3, 2006

Ookseer writes "Not sure where you live but the new LED lights used extensively in Tokyo and San Francisco are very intensely green with no blue component."

Really? I live in Tokyo, and when I say the lights are bluegreen, I'm mainly talking about the LED lights. The only intensely green light I've seen (and the light which really cemented the "most green traffic lights aren't really all that green" idea in my head) was in some very old traffic lights in a small town in the Texas countryside.
posted by Bugbread at 8:25 AM on September 4, 2006

(As for the wine-dark sea, I've heard classicists guess that Homer's color terms were based more on saturation and intensity and less on hue than ours are. If this is true, then Homer meant to say that the sea is as dark and saturated in color as wine, not the same hue as wine — making "wine-dark" a fortuitous translation.

But who knows?)
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:08 PM on September 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

From "The Art of Looking Sideways" mentioned up-thread:
Some old color terms referred to material rather than colour. In the 10th century purpura, or purple, was the name of an expensive silk. In the 11th century a scarlet was a fine woven cloth which was generally an undyed white, or coloured black, blue or green.
posted by of strange foe at 7:41 PM on September 5, 2006

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