Babies learn their first color words snuggled on a lap with a picture book. Children learn more color words as their vocabulary grows and as they begin using crayons. Most people can see millions of colors. Really, millions! However research shows that we have only eleven basic color terms in the English language: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, brown, gray, white, and black. These basic terms are single words, frequently used, and agreed on by everyone. *
Of course, we do have more than eleven color names in English. Some we make with modifiers like sky blue or hot pink. Some we make with compound color words like blue green or reddish brown. Many other unique words like maroon, tan, and chartreuse we can describe with reference to the basic color terms. Maroon is a dark red, tan is a light brown, chartreuse is a yellow green. Someone who works with color like an artist, a designer, or perhaps a quilter, may know as many as one hundred color names. An average person may only know a couple dozen color names.
Why does our natural language have names for so few of the millions of colors that we can actually see? One theory is that our language evolved with distinct names for the colors that are most useful. Notice that there are only two cool basic color terms, green and blue. These are the background colors in our world — grass, trees, sky, water. There are more warm basic color terms — red, orange, brown, yellow, pink, and purple. These are the colors of objects we have a vital interest in like people, animals, berries, and fruit.
What about the thousands of color names used in marketing fabrics, paints, makeup, and fashion? Many are “unnatural language” color names meant to evoke an emotion or an experience. Consider these Behr paint colors. Loyal is light blue, No More Drama is a deep red, Emergency Zone is an orange, and Falling Snow is a white. Corporations devote enormous budgets to developing color names and color strategies because color sells products.
It reminds me of that iconic scene from the movie The Devil Wears Prada with Meryl Streep’s speech on the color cerulean. She says, “But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.” Go watch the whole bit on YouTube if you haven’t seen it. True confession … I had never heard the color name cerulean before this movie.
BTW, there is a cerulean Crayola crayon, now one of my favorites.
*According the Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology. The fact that this reference book exists makes me very happy.