The Friday Fillip: What Colour Is Your Hue?

I have a friend who seems incapable of learning what colour puce is. It’s not one of those things where we look at turquoise and you see blueish but I see greenish. No, she always comes up with something chartreuse instead. It’s a naming problem. And when you get right down to it, names don’t cut it when it comes to colour, though we keep on trying.

Of course, there’s the whole marketing schtick, where you’re selling the sizzle as much as the steak. It’s not “beige.” Never “beige.” It’s “paper lantern” or “lemon meringue.” “Orange”? Oh no, you’re looking at “volcanic blast.” Not too long ago, Canada’s CIL Paints went a step further and introduced the matter of gender into paint names, figuring that men wouldn’t go for colours like “fairytale green” but might let the family room get painted “iced vodka.”

But even at the more basic level, where there’s nothing involved other than the sincere desire to communicate accurately, words have difficulty capturing this most basic thing—stimulus—quantum—situation—in a reliable way. We keep trying, though. Think only of the greens.

Celadon. Sea. Poison. Spring. British Racing. Forest. Hooker’s. Bottle. Kelly. Asparagus. And on and on.

Are we on the same wavelength? Let’s runs a quick and imprecise test. Here’s a set of patches of all of those colours mentioned in the order in which they’re mentioned—according to Wikipedia and various others:

Given the infinite number of possible variations of “green,” there’s plenty of time for you to go bold and name a hue after yourself.

Clearly our current way of naming of colours is a mug’s game. The target won’t hold still; names come and go; and let’s not talk about the possible variability among retinas. I mean, who can remember those fancy Regency names that were once so popular? Coqueliot, for heaven’s sake; pomona green; and, oh yes, puce. What’s wanted is a central registry where wavelengths and labels can be married firmly—it’s the sort of thing I’d have expected of Europe. (There are serious marketing possibilities here, people: very very large number of wavelengths, naming rights for sale… Do I have to paint you a picture?)

So at the end of the day, what is puce to you? (And you to puce?) Well, it’s a reddish brown, of course. But how red? how brown? My own personal puce is this:

You don’t think it’s too maroon, do you? Now that I see it, I’m wondering if it isn’t just a bit burgundy. Or do I mean cranberry?


  1. The central registry of colours exists – its called Pantone.

  2. FYI, puce is kinda like pea soup green. It’s not red.

    Which just goes to show Fillip’s point I suppose.

  3. Sorry, make that Simon’s point. My apologies.

  4. Er, Chris, you’re pulling my leg, right? Whatever nuance puce may have, it ain’t a green one. Check out Wikipedia on it:

  5. Chris may be giving the word a hard ‘c’…

  6. Susannah Tredwell

    On the subject of colours, here’s the results of xkcd’s highly unscientific survey in which “over five million colors were named across 222,500 user sessions”:

    Survey results include that “nobody can spell ‘fuchsia’.”