Originally published in STIR®



Do names of colors — often infused with cultural significance — alter our perception of the chromatic universe?

Even before my partner Billy and I moved into our first house 10 years ago, I’d already established a few “rules” for how we would renovate the interior spaces. White walls. Gallery white and flat as chalk. Color, I decided, would be reserved for the ceiling. Set in contrast to the pristine museum-like character of white walls, the ceiling would be painted a deep, rich, warm color — landing somewhere in the saturated burnt- orange/persimmon/red-clay/Andy-Warhol-tomato-soup-can spectrum. Billy, whose favorite color is any shade of blue, kindly obliged.

Over the course of several weeks, we debated the imaginary ceiling color between shifts delaminating wallpaper from the living room walls and skim-coating the plaster. Without a single paint chip on the premises, we happily chewed our way through a Roget’s Thesaurus’ worth of improbable descriptors. The color had to have passion. It had to be earthy. Had to be vivid. Crisp. Brilliant. Hot. Oxidized. Juicy. Primordial.

As fun as our front-porch musings were, we also knew we were just lobbing vague concepts back and forth — having fun with some of the imagery and feelings the words evoked. By the time we were ready to buy the paint, we had settled on the terminology. The color, it turned out, was more elusive.

We are used to having an abundance of words in the English language to slice and dice nature’s continuous color spectrum into nearly indiscernible variations of shades, tints and chroma. Consider the common names of dark blue — azure, navy, cerulean, denim and sapphire. Culturally, these names are loaded with associations — the sky, the sea, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, cowboys and precious gems. It’s easy to see how these outside references enrich our conversation about color, but they can also engender biases and cause confusion.

Members of the Ndani tribe of West Papua have no such worries. A mostly isolated agrarian society living in the highlands of New Guinea, the Ndani only have two words for colors: mili for cool or dark shades such as blue, green and black, and mola for warm and light colors like red, yellow and white. Not only are the Ndani a boon for anthropological linguists, they offer a reminder of how our modern Western civilization unnecessarily confuses our appreciation of the natural phenomena (like the color of the sky or sea) by obsessive categorization and labeling. While the Ndani example is extreme, there are many other languages that have a severely limited color vocabulary — sometimes only three or four words. In these languages, red is usually the sole color to be distinguished from dark or light, followed by yellow or green if there’s a fourth color word.

Even in early Western cultural history, words for color seemingly covered much more territory on the color wheel, and in the human psyche, than individual crayon names do today. Homer, for example, makes reference in his writings to a “wine-dark sea,” a sky the color of bronze, and blue-haired warriors. Scholars have dismissed notions that Homer was color-blind, pointing out that for ancient Greeks, the words used for colors often included other properties, such as moistness, fluidity or freshness.

For today’s English speaker, color names often trigger emotional responses that are difficult to erase once uttered. Blood red, for example, sounds more gory — and less yummy — than candy apple red. Especially when things or objects are used to help describe the color, it is virtually impossible not to see that object in your mind’s eye. Lemon yellow. See what I mean?

As for the color Billy and I finally chose for the ceiling? After three failed attempts to find the right tone — not too dark, but not too much like sherbet — we had a brainstorm that took us out to the backyard. That year (and every year since) we’d planted orange profusion zinnias in a long flower bed running from the house to the back gate. Scanning the bunch, we plucked a few petals from a particularly lovely specimen, ran inside and taped it to the ceiling. It was the perfect color. We were both, appropriately, speechless.