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Essay on Color

In order to explore the ways in which American’s judge similarity and difference of colors, I interviewed two of my male coworkers, and two female friends. The males that participated in my project were over 40 years of age. They were both alumni of the University of Connecticut, and had both come to work for UConn some years later. The two females were current students at UConn. One was a pharmacy major, the other an English major.

I came upon my first problem right away. What exactly constitutes a color name? The obvious answers are “red, blue, green… etc” but what about “grass green”? Does putting a noun before the name of a primary color constitute its own color? If this were the case, there would be no end to the color names we use. “Coca-Cola Red”, “Laser-Jet Printer Gray”, “The Carpet in the Office I Work At Blue” would all be color names under this system. However, the participants did seem to have a point. “Sky blue” is certainly considered a color by most people.

Who decides what is or is not a color? The web designers at Netscape and Internet Explorer have declared there are 140 possible colors to choose from when you view a website. The have names such as “palevioletred” and “snow”. Should “snow” be considered a color? Can the object in the world that comes in that color, define a color? If so, which color of snow is the color “snow”? I myself have seen more shades of snow then I could possibly count. How about “palevioletred”? That is simply two color names put together with an adjective. Are “brightbluegreen” and “darkwhitebrown” also colors?

Perhaps to answer these questions, we should ask the color experts at Crayola. They currently have 120 different color names in their largest box of crayons. Some of them include “Fuzzy-Wuzzy Brown”, “Macaroni and Cheese”, “Banana Mania”, and “Mountain Meadow.” In addition, they have a variety of special color sets including “Glitter”, “Pearl Brite” and “Techno Brite” colors. It also seems worth mentioning that Crayola has changed the names of some colors such as “Prussian Blue” to “Midnight Blue”, and retired others such as “Indian Red”. Does this mean that “Prussian Blue” is no longer an acceptable color name, or that it simply was not the correct name to reference the shade that is now known as “Midnight Blue”?

A few searches on the web brought me to some color name dictionaries that I thought might be helpful. I found that “Gray 1” all the way through “Gray 100” are considered color names by some. I have to wonder why each primary color does not have the same listing, for as I understand colors, there should therefore also exist “Red 1” through “Red 100”.

My conclusion was that there is just no definitive list of color names. I therefore proceeded to allow my subjects to write names such as “Christmas Tree Green”, “Sparkle Red” and “Screaming Green.” If Crayola can do it, I supposed my participants could too.

The next thing I found was that personality seemed to effect the way the subjects went about the task of separating out the “most different” chips. Right away, all my subjects repeated “Most different?” with a look of pure confusion on their faces. Apparently this was not a familiar task for them. I would repeat, “Yes, which one do YOU feel is the most different?” It seemed that once I specified that it was a personal judgment they needed to make, and not a right or wrong answer, they were more comfortable making the decisions. The older males still seemed to have more problems then the younger females. They pressed on with questions such as “What do you mean different?” “They’re ALL different, how do I choose which is most different?!” One even seemed to get frustrated at the task, but all four agreed to continue, and in the end their answers were very similar.

It seems to me that they were making their choices intuitively. If asked “why” they chose any specific card, they didn’t have an answer. They could not put into words why the yellow of chip E was more different from its closest chip D, then the greenish chips of F and H. I believe that this is why they had trouble with the task in the beginning. When there was a chance that there are right or wrong answers, how could they make choices that they could not verbally back up?

Americans are taught to be logical about their choices. They are comfortable with answers being right or wrong. When given a logic question, most Americans will refrain from adding information from their personal lives or extraneous information, and instead will give you correct logical answer, even when it goes against everything in the real world. I find it to be interesting that something we encounter as often as color names, is something we’ve allowed to be so illogical and vague. We have no real color naming system and no real color comparing system. At what point does a shade of red become “pink”? How many different colors would we constitute as “green”? There don’t seem to be any definitive answers to these questions, even though computer can measure color very easily. We can calculate the ratio of the primary colors in a given shade, and its darkness to very easily replicate a color. Why does that color not have a definitive name?

One might guess that we don’t have names for each color because there are simply too many. However, there are an infinite number of numbers we can mention, and each and ever one has its own distinct name. Why aren’t colors named by number? Perhaps we cannot differentiate between colors enough to recognize a given color alone, so we would never know which color name applied to a given shade. However, lets say I told you there are 100 shades of yellow. “Yellow 1” is the closest yellow shade to green, and “Yellow 100” is closest to red. “Yellow 50” would be the purest shade of yellow you can imagine. Would “Yellow 75” be more specific then “Reddish Yellow”? If so, what would you call “Yellow 93”? Perhaps you would say, “More Reddish Yellow” or “Orangey Yellow Red”? Maybe even “Sunset Yellow” would be your answer.

In conclusion, I have to say that color naming is not an exact science. It’s not even a guessing-game. It seems to be a free-for-all in which anyone can refer to any color with any title they like. Compare it to other colors, such as “Bluish-Green”, put a noun in front of it such as “Sea Green”, or come up with a completely random name such as “Green Whisper” and no matter what, nobody could ever argue that its not a color. Then again, nobody will ever know to which exact color shade you are referring.

Likewise color similarity judgments seem to be a vague, intuitive guessing game where people can make choices that are very similar to their peers, but that nobody can verbally back up. Perhaps we simply lack the language to describe our decisions, perhaps there is an internal scale we use but have yet to realize and put down in writing.

Maybe someday color naming will be an exact science. Perhaps it will never need to be.

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