Monday, 6 October 2014

Colour names

I enjoyed this Slate article about the explosion in Crayola crayon colours since 1903, and it got me thinking about the names of those colours. I feel like I learnt a lot from the colour names on the sides of my crayons when I was a child, since they often were words I didn't know ('burnt umber', 'cornflower'), which led me to knowledge or beliefs about the things that those names are for. (I've never knowingly seen a cornflower, but I have strong opinions about what colour they are.) There was also a tendency then to have a crayons named blue-green and orange-yellow and others in the (big) box named green-blue and yellow-orange, and I (little word-nerd that I was) liked to think about what those combinations and orders meant.

There's an interactive chart of  (US) Crayola crayon colours and names here. Some of the old names are there, some have died out, but there are also colour names like 'Mango Tango' and 'Atomic Orange'. (The big set of Crayola markers we have at home seems to have a different set of names from the crayons, and they have a more modern sound.) 

So I'm thinking about various things like:
  • What can/do children today learn about colours and the world from the names of their crayons? 
  • How do insitutionalised specific colour-names like this affect different generations' ideas about which colours these names might express?
  • What are the motivations and trends for changing or inventing new colour names in contexts like this? (Fashion, lipstick, cars are other areas with specific name trends.)
  • There's a fair amount of work out there on gender and colour nameability. Are there any indications of gender-consciousness in this name set. Presumably, Crayola wants to be marketing its products to boys and girls and wants drawing/colouring to be an activity that's not particularly gendered. But can we see any gendering in the names of particular colours? 
  • Crayola is an institution in the US. (It really, really is.) Is something else the more institutional source of colour names for children in the UK? How does it compare? Do US adults (of my generation-ish) have different colour vocabularies and different ideas about certain colour names refer from UK adults who might not have the same institutionalisation of so many colours? 
Does colour-naming (by Crayola or other companies) raise other questions for you?

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