Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Too Many Color Names

I like colors, but sometimes too much of a good thing is not a good thing anymore.

An explosion of color names
I cringe when I hear people refer to colors like chartreuse, fuchsia, cerulean, taupe, or ochre.  Don't get me wrong - they are fun words.  I just don't think we need so many words to describe colors.  Not to mention (but I'm going to anyway) that one person's ecru is another person's beige.

Scientists estimate that people can distinguish MILLIONS of different colors.  But how many of them deserve unique names?

Here's an analogy: numbers.  Consider the numbers from 1 to 1,000,000.  Even though we can distinguish the number 56,342 from the number 56,343, it doesn't mean they each deserve unique names.  In fact we only have unique names for a small fraction of the total: one, two, three four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, hundred, thousand, million.  That's it.  There are fifteen unique names for numbers in English.  All the rest are formed by combining* those fifteen with each other and certain suffixes (-teen, and -ty)**. For example: fifty-six thousand three hundred forty-two.

Similarly, I think we only need unique names for a small fraction of the millions of colors.  Here are my choices: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, black, white, grey, and brown.  If you combine those with each other, and with certain adjectives (light, dark, bright, etc.), I think we can describe any color.  Watch:  Light blue-green.  Dark red.  Bright yellow-orange.

If more precision is needed, like in a design industry for clothing or paint, one of the standard computer-based system of describing colors can be used.  For example, ochre is the hex triplet #CC7722.

But does the typical person on the street really need to know that a certain color is periwinkle or lavender.  Isn't it easier just to say light purple?

For a different perspective, see the color survey results at xkcd (not necessarily safe for work, depending on your definition of "safe").

* With the usual goofy English spelling variations: e.g. three-teen becomes thirteen.
** I suspect that -teen and -ty are both variations on -ten, but I'm too tired to research it tonight.  :(