Today’s game: I’ll give you a common word, and you give me a simple definition. Ready? The first word is “blue”.
With colors, dictionary writers have problems. They can give technical definitions (Dictionary.com, which is inspired by the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, partially defines blue as “an effect of light with a wavelength between 450 and 500 nanometers”), but that does really good to anyone.
To define colors simply, dictionaries rely on carefully chosen references to things in the real world. It sounds simple, but sometimes it’s easier said than done.
For blue, Dictionary.com actually leads with “the pure color of a clear sky,” which I dispute with. If blue is the color of a clear sky, why do we have a distinct color called “sky blue”? Red “looks like the color of blood,” which is correct, if a little morbid. Yolk refers to “egg yolk” and “ripe lemons”. Lemons, of course, but egg yolk? It’s stepping on orange feet if you ask me.
Two more simple ones: green is “the color of growing foliage” and white is “the color of pure snow, from the margins of this page”. I’m a little cute with the latter, but it’s still fine with me.
Merriam-Webster describes black fairly well with “the very dark color of the night sky or pupil of the eye”. Their brown, however, is highly suspect: “having the color of wood or chocolate”. I have seen dozens of colors of wood and chocolate so it’s not good. Merriam compensates by adding some absolute gems – “ruby” for red and “emerald” for green – which really classify things.
And then there is the orange and the purple. I looked at six English dictionaries, and none of them could crack orange or purple. You might think, “Well, oranges are oranges, aren’t they? But you can’t define a word with itself. The dictionaries end up saying that orange is “between red and yellow” and that purple has “both red and blue components”. I really dislike that.
After researching each colored word in half a dozen dictionaries, one question struck me. “Do I have too much free time? “
But then another deeper question hit me. “Would these color references be the same in different cultures or in different languages? »Is white the color of snow, for example, if you live on the equator?
Having lived in Japan for about 13 years now, I decided to get their advice. Do they appreciate rubies and emeralds like us? Do they foolishly claim that all wood and chocolate is brown? Don’t they have anything purple?
First of all, there is some overlap. I searched two Japanese dictionaries and learned that the sky is blue, the foliage is green, the snow is white, and the blood is red. This makes sense because Japan, like most of the English-speaking world, is located in a temperate, seasonal part of the northern hemisphere – which explains similar perceptions of the sky, flora, and snow – and its people. , like ours, are filled with blood.
Japan deviates from some of the others, however. Black, for example, is “a color like ink or charcoal.” For yolk, they refer to egg yolk like we do, but they specify “hard boiled,” which I’m not sure helps matters. They also include a few species of flowers, such as the ever-yellow Japanese rose.
(I believe the references to flowers are due to the preeminence of nature in Japanese society. I once asked my wife what her high school mascot was, and she said she didn’t think they had one. She then asked me: flower of the school? “)
Brown, for the Japanese lexicographer, is child’s play. The Japanese word for brown is chairo, which is made up of two characters, cha (tea) and iro (color), so the word brown is literally “color of tea.” Japan is obsessed with tea, so it holds true. No further examples needed.
And then there’s the old orange and the hopeless purple. Interestingly, Japan, just like the English speaking world, was unable to solve the orange / purple puzzle. Purple is simply defined as “a color between red and blue”, and orange is, embarrassingly, “reddish yellow.”
“Well, aren’t Japanese oranges orange? You might ask. Surprisingly, Japan is having the exact same problem as English is here. The traditional Japanese word for the color orange is daidaiiro, which is made up of two characters, daidai (a small Asian orange) and iro (color).
Just as it is by definition useless for us to say “orange like an orange”, the Japanese cannot very well say “daidaiiro like a daidai”. Isn’t it weird that two totally different languages evolved without a color word for orange, only to then recover a word by the name of the same fruit? Or do I just have too much free time?
Before we wrap up, there’s another weird similarity between Japanese and English colors, and it’s the confusion around green and blue. I hate to challenge Kentucky state pride like that, but bluegrass is clearly green, guys.
I know, I know, it’s actually the blue flowers of ripe bluegrass. But who lets it grow a meter high to see it bloom? Whenever I see bluegrass it is two inches tall and is green.
The Japanese say something similar to traffic lights. When a light turns green, 100% of Japanese will say, “It’s blue. Outside of the context of a traffic light, that exact color is called green, but put it 20 feet above a pavement and everyone calls it blue.
Total, but interesting mystery that two independent languages consistently call a certain blue green thing.
I have to end up here, but I can’t help but feel guilty that I couldn’t find anything orange or purple. So your homework this week is to think of something orange or purple and contact a dictionary editor about it.
If you finally solve the case and your idea appears in the new Merriam-Webster, I for one will be blue with envy.
Justin Whittinghill is originally from Owensboro and works as an Assistant Professor of English at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column airs on the last Sunday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be contacted at [email protected]