Named colours

The folly of subjective references

‘My dear chap, I tell you a libbard has black spots.’

‘Puce,’ Sir Palomides said obstinately.

‘What is puce? And anyway we have not got any.’

They glared at each other with the fury of creators.

T.H. White, The Once and Future King, pg. 299

These quarreling knights deftly demonstrate the trouble with subjective references.

To me, this problem most often rears its head when dealing with colours: in conversation, you’ll frequently hear reference to some specific shade of a colour—salmon, say—even though those participating may have very different understandings of how that colour looks. Who’s to say that my salmon is the same as yours? Perhaps mine is more orange, yours more pink. (I’m not even sure that those are the proper axes for “salmon”.)

Most of us (colour-blind individuals, in whose number I somewhat count myself, excluded) have an understanding of the broadly named colours, under whose umbrella these subjective shades sit. It’s relatively safe to speak of colour in broad terms, but the chance for miscommunication is much greater when we dive into discussing these shades. “Red” as a broad category is broadly understood. “Salmon” as a specific shade is subject to individual understanding.

Broad categories are useful to get conversation going, but specific subjective references should be avoided when possible, in favour of more objectively definable descriptions.

Instead of “salmon”, favour a more objective description. Offer a specific RGB or CMYK value. Use a paint swatch. Find some way to express your sentiment in clearly defined terms, lest we fall prey to the fury of creators, which is usually a fury from failed communication.