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How Do Colors Get Their Names?

Bright colours in shapes of ice cream scoops in cones for Indian holi festival
Nataliya Druchkova/Shutterstock

While there are only a few “basic” colors, numerous names for various color hues make it confusing when you’re shopping for a car or suit. Where did all of these names come from?

How We “See” Colors

Around the world, different names exist for different colors. While people in the United States know of many shades of each of the primary and secondary colors, people in other countries may not have names for all of those extra shades of gray. It’s not that they don’t see those colors, it’s more likely that they don’t care about blue being anything more than blue.

No matter where you go, it seems that black, white, red, green, yellow, and blue are most often the first recognized colors. Live Science points out that these are the primary colors seen and named in various cultures. This may be because people see the wavelengths of these colors first. Of course, not every culture has names for even the primary colors.

Black and white seem to be the most common colors, with terms relating to them across most cultures and countries. Even in cultures with 11 basic colors, like the United States, it’s often only the basics that are named.

Combining Colors

Color combinations start out simple, like blue-green and yellow-orange, but where do the fancy terms come from? Does everyone know what teal and turquoise are, in addition to the differences between those two colors? Of course, they don’t. Artist and interior designers often have a trained eye for subtle color differences, but the general public (even in the United States) don’t always see these tiny differences. It could have something to do with color-blindness (of which there is more than one type), or it could simply mean they just don’t distinguish the differences between things like sky blue and authentic blue because they don’t need to see the difference.

You may have heard of numerous colors from vermillion to cyan, but are not be able to pick out that color in a lineup. You may be able to distinguish a difference between dark blue and navy blue, but not know which is which. Seeing color differences but not knowing individual names for them is normal.

Who comes up with the names for those combinations? Some names come from other languages.

  • Alice Blue: This is a pale grayish-blue color that may be named after Alice Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest daughter. It’s actual origin isn’t confirmed, however.
  • Cerise: Cerise, a color also known as “Fashion Fuchsia,” gets its name from the French meaning of the word. Cerise means cherry. The color is described as a deep reddish-pink.
  • Fuchsia: The original fuchsia color gets its name from the flower of the fuchsia plant. The plants itself got its name from a botanist in the sixteenth century, Leonhard Fuchs.
  • Prussian Blue: Another color with multiple names, Prussian Blue, is also known as Berlin Blue. The color was initially discovered in Berlin but was then used to color the uniforms of the Prussian army.
  • Puce: Puce is French for flea, the bug that torments household pets, and wild animals. The reddish-brown color resembles that of the nuisance insect. The bug and the name of the color both sound gross.
  • Tyrian Purple: Royal Purple is another name for Tyrian Purple, a color named for the city of Tyre by the ancient Phoenicians. The “Royal” moniker comes from the fact that the color was expensive and only the wealthy were able to afford it.
  • Zinnwaldite: Zinnwaldite is named for the beige mineral that shares its shade.

As you can see, colors get their names from all sorts of places—from people, food, and drink items, to other languages, animals and bugs, nature and plants, and anything people can think up to call a color. Some have strange names, and some have elegant ones.

How Paint and Crayon Colors Have Expanded Our Color Spectrum

Cans of paint and boxes of crayons expose people to an array of color names, including Dandelion and Inchworm. Where they get their color names from vary.

According to Consumer Reports, paint names often come from experiences and descriptions of things. The same article also points out how Behr names their colors in categories that include visual, emotional, and geographical. Some color names come from places, others from things that make you feel joy, love, peace, among other emotions.

Crayola names many of their colors using a book on colorsColor: Universal Language and Dictionary of Names, is published by the U.S. Bureau of Standards. When not using its pages as a reference, Crayola uses names from artists’ paints and their consumers, offering chances for crayon users to come up with colors and vote on colors.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »