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Uncommonly Colorful Words

Updated: Feb 11

(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)


Words can stir your imagination and create visions in your mind’s eye. If I told you about my newly painted green walls, what would you envision? The color of grass, an emerald gem, a Granny Smith apple? Would “teal” or “chartreuse” give you a better idea?


I’ve chosen a few uncommonly-used colorful words to add to your conversational repertoire. But first, a quick review of color wheel basics. There are 3 primary colors: red, blue and yellow and three secondary colors: purple, green, and orange. The secondary colors are made by combining two primaries. Purple comes from mixing red and blue, green comes from blue and yellow, and orange comes from yellow and red. There are six tertiary colors made by combining a primary color with a secondary color or by combining two secondaries.


Teal and chartreuse are tertiary colors. Teal is a blue-green and chartreuse is a yellow-green. When more blue is added to teal, it becomes “cyan” and when more yellow is added to chartreuse, it become “citrine”. There are an infinite number of colors based on the degrees of each combination, and quite literally, the human eye can discern millions of them!


Color is a complicated subject intensified by the physics of the electromagnetic spectrum. But don’t worry, this column is about “words”, not radiation frequencies. Although very old, these are rarely used:


Chartreuse is a color named after two French liqueurs - a yellowish-green liqueur introduced in 1764 and a greenish-yellow one introduced in 1838.


Puce is dark red-brown and rumored to have been Marie Antoinette’s favorite color. In Old French, the word means “flea” (as in the blood color of a squashed flea) and was first used as a color term in the 14th century.


Cerise is a vivid reddish-pink and comes from the French word for “cherry” and was first used in English as a color term in the British Times newspaper in 1858.


Verdigris was first known in the 14th century from the Anglo-French term “vert de Grece” meaning "green of Greece." Ancient Greeks manufactured this pigment by hanging copper plates over hot vinegar to mimic naturally oxidized copper.


Cerulean is a blue-green first noted as a color name in English in 1590 and mostly likely comes from a Latin word for sky.


Vermillion is halfway between red and orange. Its pigment is prepared from the mineral, cinnabar, mostly found in China. Vermillion is also known as “cinnabar” or “Chinese red” and has been around for thousands of years. When cinnabar was found to be toxic, the chemical cadmium replaced it. Spanish painter, Francisco de Goya, was so fond of vermillion, or “cadmium red”, that it is also known as “goya”.


Buff is a color term commonly used but its derivation may not be commonly known. It is a quaternary color (two secondaries or one primary and one tertiary) made up of green, orange and purple (i.e., degrees of blue, yellow, and red). Who knew that such a bland color contained so much color!


Heliotrope is a pink-purple (along the lines of lavender but more pink) and was first used as a color term in English in 1882.


Amethyst is a transparent violet (bluish-purple) named after the quartz mineral. It was first recorded as a color term in English in 1572.


Cattleya is named after 18th century orchid enthusiast, William Cattley, and is a moderate purple that is redder and paler than heliotrope and bluer and paler than amethyst.


I hope my definitions were clearer than mud (yellow-red-black) and hope you enjoyed this little spin around the color wheel.

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