There is a distinct lack of coloration in today’s automobiles, with the majority seemingly finished in a shade that could be found on a greyscale chart. Things are no better in the
interior; nearly always black, beige or grey, colours that architectural and couture designers refer to as neutrals. To make matters worse, these shades are all too often matched to
the exterior pigment (i.e. black with black, silver with grey) to create insidious and mind-numbing monochrome vehicles that appear to have simply been dipped whole into a large vat
1937 Delahaye 135, ivory and navy blue with dark red leather
Things were not always this gloomy. From the dawn of motoring through the 1920s, cars were painted in a full spectrum of colours, often in vivid combinations. The world’s first motor
vehicle, the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen was green, with its fully-exposed engine finished in bright red. At the Villa d’Este or Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance one sees a veritable
riot of colour that would likely be a bit shocking to today’s consumers: black with orange, yellow with orange, dark and light blue, dark and light green, red with blue, maroon with
red; the palette was limitless.
I’m not even remotely “into” cars but I loved this article… and I do think that it’s a bit of a shame that cars don’t exhibit the variety of colour that they used to, any longer. As a
kid, I remember that the old chap who lived on the other side of our street kept a remarkably old-fashioned but regal looking car (I’ve no idea what it was: I was only very young) in
racing green with maroon trim and leather, and chrome window frames. I used to think how cool it was that he got to have a car that was so distinctive and unusual, because it was
already rare to see things that didn’t just fit into the same boxy, bland palettes. Since then, things have only gotten worse: I can’t remember the time that my daily commute took me
past a car that wasn’t painted in an all-encompassing single-colour coat of metallic black, white, silver, red, or blue and with interior plastic entirely in one of two shades of dark
Hopefully it’s just a phase that we, as a society, are going through.
Let me try that again: which came first, the colour or the fruit?
Still not quite right – one more try: which came first, orange, the English name of the colour, or orange, the English name of the fruit? What I really want
to know is: is the fruit named after the colour or the colour after the fruit? (I find it hard to believe that the two share a name and colour simply by coincidence)
It turns out that the fruit came first. Prior to the introduction of oranges to Western Europe in around the 16th or 17th century by Portugese merchants, English-speaking
countries referred to the colour by the name ġeolurēad. Say that Old English word out loud and you’ll hear its roots: it’s a combination of the historical versions of the
words “yellow” and “red”. Alternatively, people substituted words like “gold” or “amber”: also both words for naturally-occurring substances whose identity is confirmed by
There wasn’t much need for a dedicated word in English to describe the colour, before the introduction of the fruit, because there wasn’t much around of that colour. The
colour orange isn’t common in nature: a few fruits, copper-rich soils and rocks, a small number of tropical fish, a handful of flowers… and of course autumn leaves during that brief
period before they go brown and are washed away by Britain’s encroaching winter weather.
Brent Berlin and Paul Kay theorise that the evolution of a language tends towards the
introduction of words for particular colours in a strict order: so words to distinguish between green and blue (famously absent in Japanese,
Vietnamese, and Thai) are introduced before brown is added, which in term appears before the distinction of pink, orange, and grey. At a basic level, this seems to fit: looking at a
variety of languages and their words for different
colours, you’ll note that the ‘orange’ column is filled far less-often than the ‘brown’ column, which in turn is filled less-often than the ‘green’ column.
This is a rather crude analogy, of course, because some languages go further than others in their refinement of a particular area of the spectrum. Greek, for example, breaks down what
we would call “blue” into τυρκουάζ (turquoise) and κυανό (azure), and arguably βιολέ (violet), although a Greek-speaker would probably put the
latter down as a shade of purple, rather than of blue. It makes sense, I suppose, that languages are expected to develop a name for the colour “red” no later than they do for other
colours (other than to differentiate between darkness and lightness) – a lot of important distinctions in biology, food, and safety depend on our ability to communicate about red
things! But it seems to me that we’ve still got a way to go, working on our linguistic models of colour.
If we’d evolved on Mars (and were still a sighted, communicative, pack creature, but – for some reason – still had a comparable range and resolution of colour vision), our languages
would probably contain an enormous variety of words for colours in the 650-750 nanometre wavelengths (the colours that English speakers universally call “red”). Being able to navigate
the red planet based on the different ratios of hematites in the rocks, plains, soils and dusts would doubtless mean that the ability to linguistically distinguish between a dark-red
feature and a medium-red feature could be of great value!
The names we have for colours represent a part of our history, and our environment. From an anthropological and linguistic perspective, that’s incredibly interesting.
If it weren’t for the ubiquity of, say, violets and lavender in the Northern hemisphere, perhaps the English language wouldn’t have been for a word for that particular colour, and the
rainbow would have six colours instead of seven. And if I’d say, “Richard Of York Gave Battle In…”, nobody would know how to finish the sentence.
In other news, I recently switched phone network, and I’m now on Orange (after many years on Vodafone). There is no connection between this fact and this blog post; I just thought I’d share.
Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #14:
Go to a “Traffic Lights Party” organized by the students union, where you’re supposed to dress in a colour that dictates your availability status. Red is “Taken”. Yellow is “Maybe
available”. Green is “Desperate”. Wear yellow. Fail to ‘pull’.
The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University
of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.