Today’s game: I’ll give you a common word, and you give me a simple definition for it. Ready? The first word is “blue.”
With colors, dictionary writers run into trouble. They can give technical definitions (Dictionary.com, which pulls from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, partially defines blue as “an effect of light with a wavelength between 450 and 500 nanometers”), but this doesn’t really do anybody any good.
To simply define colors, dictionaries fall back on carefully chosen references to things in the real world. Sounds straightforward, but this is sometimes easier said than done.
For blue, Dictionary.com actually leads with, “the pure color of a clear sky,” which I take issue with. If blue is the color of a clear sky, why do we have a separate color called “sky blue”? Red is “resembling the color of blood,” which is accurate if a little morbid. Yellow references “egg yolk” and “ripe lemons.” Lemons, sure, but egg yolk? That’s stepping on orange’s toes if you ask me.
Two more simple ones: Green is “the color of growing foliage” and white is “of the color of pure snow, of the margins of this page.” Getting a little cute with that last one, but I’m still fine with it.
Merriam-Webster describes black pretty well with “the very dark color of the night sky or the eye’s pupil.” Their brown, however, is highly suspect: “having the color of wood or chocolate.” I’ve seen dozens of colors of both wood and chocolate, so that’s no good. Merriam makes up for it by throwing in some absolute gems—“ruby” for red and “emerald” for green—which really classes things up.
And then there are orange and purple. I consulted six English dictionaries, and none of them could crack orange or purple. You might think, “Well, oranges are orange, aren’t they?” But you can’t define a word with itself. Dictionaries end up saying that orange is “between red and yellow” and that purple has “components of both red and blue.” This displeases me greatly.
After looking up every color word in a half-dozen dictionaries, a question struck me. “Do I have too much time on my hands?”
But then another, deeper question struck me. “Would these color referents be the same across different cultures, or in different languages?” Is white the color of snow, for example, if you live on the equator?
Having lived in Japan some 13 years now, I decided to get their take. Do they value rubies and emeralds like we do? Do they foolishly claim that all wood and chocolate are brown? Do they have nothing purple?
First of all, there is some overlap. I searched through two Japanese dictionaries and learned that the sky is blue, foliage is green, snow is white, and blood is red. This makes sense as Japan, like most of the English-speaking world, is located in a temperate, season-having part of the Northern Hemisphere —which accounts for similar perceptions of the sky, plant life, and snow — and its people, like ours, are filled with blood.
Japan does swerve on a few of the others, however. Black, for example, is “a color like ink or charcoal.” For yellow, 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 flower species to boot, like the ever-yellow Japanese rose.
(I believe the flower referents 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, “What was your high school flower?”)
Brown, for the Japanese lexicographer, is a piece of cake. The Japanese word for brown is chairo, which is composed of two characters, cha (tea) and iro (color), so the word brown is literally “tea color.” Japan is tea obsessed, so this checks out. No further example necessary.
And then there are hopeless old orange and purple. Interestingly, Japan, just like the English-speaking world, hasn’t been able to solve the orange/purple conundrum. 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. Amazingly, Japan runs into exactly the same problem as English here. The traditional Japanese word for the color orange is daidaiiro, which is composed of two characters, daidai (a small Asian orange) and iro (color).
Just as it’s definitionally useless for us to say “orange like an orange,” the Japanese can’t very well say “daidaiiro like a daidai.” Isn’t it bizarre that two totally different languages evolved without a color word for orange, only to then scavenge a word from the name of the same fruit? Or do I just have too much time on my hands?
Before we wrap up, there’s one more bizarre similarity between Japanese and English colors, and that’s the confusion around green and blue. I hate to challenge Kentucky state pride like this, but bluegrass is clearly green, you guys.
I know, I know, it’s actually about the blue flowers on mature bluegrass. But who lets it grow three feet high to ever see it bloom? Every time I see bluegrass, it’s two inches tall and green.
The Japanese say something similar at traffic lights. When a light turns green, 100% of Japanese people will say, “It’s blue.” Outside the context of a traffic light, this exact color is called green, but put it 20 feet above a roadway and everyone calls it blue.
Total mystery, but interesting that two unrelated languages routinely call a certain green thing blue.
I need to finish up here, but I can’t help feeling guilty that I couldn’t come up with 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 crack the case, and your idea shows up in the new Merriam-Webster, I for one will be blue with envy.
Justin Whittinghill is an Owensboro native who works as an assistant professor of English at Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column runs on the last Sunday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be reached at email@example.com.