Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Purple is the Loneliest Color, or, What Happens When You Look Up Color Names in the Dictionary

Gray is one of several deceptively easy words I can never remember how to spell correctly, though my Random House dictionary says that both a and e are acceptable.  The rest of the entry reads

gray (grā), adj. 1. of a color between white and black.

That a color can be so easily described in ordinary English I find astounding.  Try to outline the specifics of red, orange, or blue without using examples: you can’t do it!  Sure, you can stumble over words like bright, somber, or subtle to describe its hue, or words like rosy, fiery, or murky that are further dependent on familiar images, but each attempt comes down to the word itself: red is red, blue is blue, orange is orange. 

Gray is one of several colors that it finds its identity as its place between two others.  We could say the same thing about the other in-between sections of the color wheel, for example, green:

green (grēn), adj. 1. of the color of growing foliage, between yellow and blue in the spectrum.

Here, the writers have again used other colors to assist readers in imagining the color green, but they’ve also—first and foremost—compared it to a familiar image: growing foliage.  Not autumn foliage, but green summer foliage.  (Though I would never have thought to use those two words together, it’s a beautifully succinct way of describing green leaves without using the word green.)

Growing foliage is the idea the Random House folks believe will help the largest number of readers imagine the color green without ambiguity.  It’s a diplomat into the indescribable realm of colors, an honor held by a few other images:

yellow (yel′ō), n. 1. the color of an egg yolk or a ripe lemon.

Here again the images are from nature, this time two foods.  Yellow, it turns out, is the only color to have two dictionary images, probably because egg yolks and lemons both readily present themselves to readers.  Here’s red:

red (red) adj. 1. any of various colors resembling the color of blood.

Fairly morbid, but clearer than anything I can think of.  Orange, through the magic of homophones, takes care of the problem for us, though we can also find it on the color wheel:

or•ange (ôr′inj) n. 1. any of various reddish yellow, edible citrus fruits.  2. a tree bearing such fruits.  3. a color between yellow and red.

Though orange as a fruit is technically a separate definition, it still does the job.  Blue, meanwhile, uses an image ubiquitous to any kindergartener:

blue (blōō) n., adj. 1. the pure color of a blue sky.

Which brings us, last but not least, to purple:

purple (pûr′pǝl) n., adj. 1. any color having components of both red and blue, esp. one deep in tone.

This is fine—after all, the orange definition was a little convoluted too.  However, why aren’t the writers able to capture the color with a natural, determinable image like they are with all the others?  The rest of the entry provides little help: purple can specify a kind of royal cloth, denote something as imperial, describe exaggerated literary devices, or be used for the shocking or profane.  Nor can my edition of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary help, though it does list purple as a mollusk of the genus Purpura that yields a purple dye.  (That’s right, purple is a kind of mollusk!)

I’m tempted to criticize my dictionaries until I attempt to find my own image to describe purple.  An amethyst?  Not common enough.  A violet, as in the type of flower?  This would work, but it makes for awkward wording, and doesn’t match the power of sky or blood.  A certain part of a sunset?  No way of telling which part.  A bruise?  Again, not all bruises are purple.

Purple, then, becomes a color lacking the natural familiarity we find in the others, a foreign, man-made hue.  This may be what led its rarity to be prized by earlier civilizations, and why purple is a traditional color of royalty, though under different circumstances the reverse could easily be true: without an easy way of identifying purple with the world around it, purple becomes a lost, misfit, lonely color.  Like anything that doesn’t synch with the natural, we can view purple in different ways, with the result that how we finally do view the purple in our lives becomes a litmus test to determine our relationship with the abnormal. 

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