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What Color is That? Posted by on Aug 30, 2018 in English Language, English Vocabulary

“Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.” Pablo Picasso

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How do you describe colors? The sky is blue, but so is the ocean. They aren’t the same color, are they? And the sky and ocean aren’t always the same color all the time. How, then, do you distinguish one shade of a color from another? Descriptors for something as basic as colors are a necessary part of English, and you will encounter them every day.

I bought a new car recently. It’s green. I mean it’s a bright, vivid green. Honda describes it as Energy Green which, I suppose, is fairly descriptive. However, it still seems like a poor estimation of the color. My car is the color of a highway worker’s high-resolution green vest. Putting aside for the moment any question of the wisdom of buying a car that color (my brother-in-law thinks I’m insane), friends and family have found interesting ways to describe the actual shade of green.

Lending specificity to colors

It is always helpful to lend some specificity when describing a color. We all have some kind of an emotional or subjective association with colors. If I said to you that my tee shirt is gold you might imagine it as the color of your wedding ring. Or, perhaps you have a garden with marigolds, so you conjure up the color of marigolds when you think of my tee shirt. So, the proper descriptor would include something that further defines the color.

Paint and fabric manufacturers hire people to name their colors, a job which requires considerable imagination. One excellent resource is Benjamin Moore Paints, because of their massive collection of colors. The problem, though, is the subjective nature of these naming techniques. Is a tangelo, which is a hybrid of a tangerine and a grapefruit, brighter or duller in color when compared with a Florida orange? Both are colors offered by the paint company.

A few years ago, author Ingrid Sundberg created a color thesaurus, a writing tool which she hoped would provide evocative descriptors of colors for other authors. It’s a great starting point for anyone who finds colors difficult to explain to others. How about Arctic Blue, or Ballet Slipper Pink?

Colors for the blind

But, what about trying to describe a color to someone who cannot see colors at all? This is actually a job interview question for some companies, like Spirit Airlines. Remember that the person has never seen the color. Since we make associations with color, perhaps the best option would be to use one of the other senses to help your description.

Yellow is the color of the sun. So, yellow is warm and the complete opposite of darkness. Red is the color of a ripe tomato or a raspberry, so red is fresh and tart. Blue is the color of the sky on a clear and breezy day, so it is cool. Give an orange to someone who has never seen the color orange and ask them to taste it. That is what the color is like. Grey is the color of a cloudy day, so grey feels like midday without sunshine. Green is the color of grass and therefore smells like a newly mown lawn.

As for my car? Invite a blind person to listen to an old science fiction movie with aliens invading from outer space. Hear that ray gun zapping sound? That’s the color of my car.

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