Sunday, 8 September 2013

How many words are there for green?

Precise colour names in writing delight me.  I grew up in a family of artists, for whom the difference between "lime green" and "chartreuse" is as obvious and important as the difference between coffee and tea.  Mum and I once had a half-hour debate on the exact shade that is "taupe".  (I still maintain it has a hint of green.  She still disagrees.)  AS Byatt's "sage and russet" moor in Virgin in the Garden caught at my breath.  Doing watercolours in Nyons on my gap-year taught me to see how many greens are involved in a "green" hillside - I mixed them painstakingly, but naming them all precisely is an even more succulent challenge.
When I posted a Facebook pic of my freshly painted shed ("It's called 'wood sage' but actually it's more of a duck-egg aquamarine") a friend quipped, "fifty sheds of green" - and we started collecting shades of green, aiming for fifty.

jade     pea   leaf-green         mint    
olive    teal      artichoke         khaki     fern    forest   spring green   lime green      bottle green       emerald           peridot            apple       icecream green       gunmetal         pine     avocado           seagreen          moss    army green                 aquamarine      hunter green       chartreuse       acid green    grass    sage

We can rack up still more with adjectives for colours:

pale green        light green       dark green       bright green     mid-green        degraded green           neon green            vivid green      subdued green       soft green        rich green

Most of our colour names come from things that colour, which can pose problems.  A pea-green boat is beautiful, but what colour is pea soup then?  Sitting by the Cape Town sea once, I tried to name every layer of colour stretching before me.  The widest greeny patch eluded me, until I finally found... aquamarine!  Which means... seawater.  Hours of scrutiny and careful thought for the grand insight that most the sea's water is the colour of seawater.  Swapping about doesn't always work either.  Calling the grass mint-green just feels silly, especially if your wilting mint is now pea-green and your fresh peas are grass green... Sometimes the skill isn't naming the colours, but letting the objects show the colours for you: chimney pots in the rain, streetlights on puddles, fallen leaves in the mud.  Seedlings in wet soil.  Spinach and feta.

The colour-words that filled my early writing are now automatic no-no's, to me: crimson, jade, azure.  I still love a rich medieval palette, but not the grandiose gem words, and I'll only call something jade if it actually is the crystal.  I used to think artist's paints would help me name colours, but they turn esoteric fast: oxide of chromium, cobalt chromite...  I tried paint swatches next, but they're vague and aspirational to the point of fey: enchanted Eden, Kiwi crush, sea breeze.  Pantones are just numbered.  Hexhub, for web colours, plays surprisingly well - and offered me the memorable "lizard green".  We get to make up our own colour names too, of course: celery green, snot-green, absinthe-green.  The metaphor attaches - what if the sea is snot-green? What if his eyes aren't grey-green but lizard-green, or aren't bright green but absinthe green?

We've only reached 30 words for green thus far, so any more - real, new, or wholly imaginary - are welcome! I chose the colours for my words here from the delicious Feel free to argue about my choice of shades; it'll make you feel like part of my family.  If you want to colour your own words in, put this html around your word: <font color="#CCFF00">my green</font> and change the underlined bit to the hex code from colourlovers.

P.S. This is my shed and assorted matching garden furniture in various lights.  Would you call that sage? I wouldn't. Especially when you compare it to the actual sage.

Thanks to Lucy Palmer of Pop Goes the Feasible, Lucy Marcovitch the children's writer, and Fiona Thraille the voice actor for their rafts of green words.

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