The linguistics of colour names

May 16, 2017

The news website Vox has produced some good videos on linguistic topics, which can be found amidst their many other clips. Its latest one looks at the vexed question of colour names and categories in different languages, and in 6½ minutes it offers a decent summary:



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Back formations and flag denotations

April 26, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, False and flying colours in metaphor, looks at a particular sense of the word colours that refers to flags, in turn an abstraction of identity:

Like many phrases now in common figurative use, with flying colours was literal at first (inasmuch as hanging a flag is literally flying it). But the expression, with its vivid imagery and connotations of success, has obvious appeal, and people duly broadened it to refer to achievements unaccompanied by flag-flying.

A related expression, also of naval pedigree, is to sail [or fight] under false colours, synonymous with under false pretences. It refers to an old seafaring trick associated with pirates but not limited to them, who misrepresented their identity by hoisting ‘friendly’ flags, and so were able to get close enough to a target ship to catch its crew unawares.

You can read the rest for more on the origins and uses of these metaphors.


Surveilling a new back formation considers the word-formation process known as back formation, focusing in particular on surveil, a recent entry to Macmillan Dictionary:

Some back formations are deliberately comical. Jack Winter’s essay ‘How I Met My Wife’ features such novelties as chalant and petuous (from nonchalant and impetuous); here, the removal of prefixes rather than the usual suffixes gives them a playful feel. Other back formations are obviously redundant, such as conversate, cohabitate, and evolute. The use of these and similar words is likely to invite criticism and complaint – sometimes unfounded, as with orientate. Certain others, such as enthuse, occupy a grey area of acceptability.

More often, back formations are developed because there’s a need for them. Surveil is a case in point.

See the full post for more discussion and examples of back formation, or my archive at Macmillan for older stuff.

Words changing colour like crabs

February 25, 2013

From the Eumaeus episode of Ulysses by James Joyce:

Over his untasteable apology for a cup of coffee, listening to this synopsis of things in general, Stephen stared at nothing in particular. He could hear, of course, all kinds of words changing colour like those crabs about Ringsend in the morning, burrowing quickly into all colours of different sorts of the same sand where they had a home somewhere beneath or seemed to.

After the noncommittal vagueness of “things in general” and “nothing in particular”, I love how the image of local crabs, so suddenly specific, transports us (and Stephen) briefly out of the human domain across to the Dublin coast and the wordless creatures alive in the sand. It’s a strange and surprising analogy and one with a hint of synaesthesia.

Ancient people names in Ireland

October 30, 2012

Gearóid Mac Niocaill’s book Ireland before the Vikings (Gill and Macmillan, 1972) has an interesting passage on the names adopted on the island during the 4th, 5th and early 6th centuries. He refers to “a mosaic of peoples” who are “dimly perceptible” amid the settlements and political changes he has been discussing, and whose names appear in various forms:

ending in –raige (‘the people of’), or as Dál (‘the share of’) or Corco (perhaps ‘seed’) plus a second element, or as a collective noun ending in –ne. Some contain animal names, such as Artraige ‘bear-people’, Osraige ‘deer-people’, Grecraige ‘horse-people’, Dartraige ‘calf-people’, Sordraige ‘boar-people’; others, such as the Ciarraige, the Dubraige and Odraige, have a colour (ciar ‘black’, dub also ‘black’, odor ‘dun’) as the first element; others, such as the Cerdraige, seem to have an occupational term as the first element.

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Helping kids learn colour names

July 20, 2011

Melody Dye has a very interesting article in Scientific American on why it’s so difficult for kids to learn words for colours, and how it can be made easier for them:

psychologists have found that even after hours and hours of repeated training on color words, children’s performance typically fails to noticeably improve, and children as old as six continue to make major color naming errors. This is seriously bizarre when you consider all the other things that children at that age can do

Different cultures divide the colour spectrum differently – sometimes subtly so, sometimes drastically. This means that learning colour terms requires children to learn not just the words but the particular colour map that obtains in their culture. And since colours are ubiquitous and blend into one another, it naturally takes a while to sort it all out.

This process might be particularly tricky in English because

we like to use color words “prenominally,” meaning before nouns. So, we’ll often say things like “the red balloon,” instead of using the postnominal construction, “the balloon is red.”

Dye explains why this matters: it has to do with how our attention works. Understanding this means we can help children learn colours more quickly by adjusting our syntax slightly in a way that will direct their attention in a particular way.

The article is well worth reading, and there are many links for the curious. [Edit: It was published about a year ago, so some of you will have already read it. Somehow I saw it only recently.]

Update: The same principle also applies to number learning.

Book review: Through the Language Glass

June 21, 2011

Whether and how our languages shape our thoughts, perceptions and worldviews is a perennially vexed subject. (For starters, what do we mean by shape and thoughts?) Known as linguistic relativity or the Whorfian or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the nature and extent of this influence have proved difficult to establish. Traditionally, some philosophers made grandiose claims about it, but the currency of such claims plummeted in the 20th century.

Linguist Guy Deutscher, in a NYT Magazine article titled ‘Does Your Language Shape How You Think?’ says that with ‘Science and Linguistics‘ (PDF), Benjamin Whorf ‘seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think’. I don’t think Whorf deserves so much responsibility, or blame, for whole-generational seduction,* but here’s a pertinent excerpt from his influential essay:

Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds.

Despite linguistic relativity’s fall from academic favour, it persists – thrives, even – in the popular imagination. In his new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Deutscher looks at how valid it really is and what conclusions may be drawn about it. Sifting through a weight of data and theories, he describes several ways in which a weak form of linguistic relativity seems to obtain – colour perception, gender, and spatial orientation – and makes the case that language can influence our thoughts and thought patterns not radically, but more significantly than is sometimes acknowledged.

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The red pen effect

June 22, 2010

When I began freelance editing, I decided to track changes in blue rather than the default red. I did this not just to avoid red’s overtones of aggressive nitpicking, but because blue seemed better suited to my temperament and editing style — even and light, respectively, unless stricter handling is required. Blue is a more neutral colour, and once I adopted it there was never a question of reverting, though what colours appear on a client’s computer is beyond my control.

There’s more at play here than aesthetics and personal preference. A recent study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that red pens prime us to be more critical. In “The pen is mightier than the word: Object priming of grading standards” (PDF; abstract), authors Abraham Rutchick, Michael Slepian and Bennett Ferris summarise the research done on error perception and the colour red, before describing how they went about exploring red-pen “object priming”. “A small but growing body of research”, they report,

has shown that physical objects and environments can also influence cognition and behavior. For instance, the presence of guns can intensify aggression . . . and merely seeing a sports drink leads participants to perform with greater endurance. . . . in essence, any object that is closely associated with a concept could potentially influence behavior by making that concept more accessible.

This makes a lot of intuitive sense, but it’s important to test these ideas under controlled conditions in order to remove or reduce bias. “Because the color red is implicitly associated with avoidance and failure,” they note, “and red pens specifically have long been associated with errors, we propose that exposure to a red pen activates the concepts of errors, poor performance, and evaluative harshness.” They conducted three well-conceived experiments to examine these effects, and the results were telling:

people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than people using blue pens. . . . the very act of picking up a red pen can bias [teachers’] evaluations.


exposure to a red pen in the context of grading a paper can influence behavior, likely without the awareness of the person being influenced

The researchers cite various studies that provide evidence of an automatic cognitive link between red and failure. The connection is subtle, and context is everything; the effect of red might be very different if one is selling toothpaste or designing toys. One study suggests that “exposure to red facilitates effective performance of tasks that demand vigilance, attention, and a focus on detail”. No wonder it’s the default in editing. “The pen is mightier than the word”, of course, is far from the final word on the matter:

there are other possibilities. For example, red pens could influence levels of testosterone and aggression, or exposure to the color could activate an avoidance orientation, leading evaluators to be more cautious and critical.

As the authors acknowledge, carrying out similar studies — such as in cultures where the red-pen–error association doesn’t exist — would help resolve such uncertainties.


In the Boston Globe a couple of weeks ago, Jan Freeman wrote about the implications of this research with characteristic tolerance and good sense. “The zero-tolerance legions,” she observed,

never question the assumption that correcting pupils’ language mistakes will help them to write better. . . . It’s only natural to cherish a few language peeves. But if your red-pen reflex is overactive, you might ask yourself — is all that indignation doing you, or the world, any good?

She draws attention to a radio interview with Ben Zimmer, where a commenter threatens to switch off if he — I think it’s a he — hears Ben say basically or essentially even once. (See my previous post about basically-fulmination.) Jan’s excellent language blog, Throw Grammar from the Train, is subtitled “Notes from a recovering nitpicker”. You can probably tell why I like it so much.

My interest in peevology owes something to my former life as a part-time peever; my prescriptivist tendencies were based less on reason and evidence than presumption. Editing requires a measure of fussiness and pedantry, but only inasmuch as it serves the text and stems from sound, well-informed judgement.



Returning to pen colours, Mighty Red Pen (whose blog I also enjoy, despite our relative chromo-contrariety) wrote that when she edited her college paper, they had “a hierarchy of pen colours”, with the editor in chief using a privileged purple. Mark Allen revealed in a comment that he tends to “reach for the blue felt-tip over the red if they’re lying next to each other”, but feels that he may be doing the client a disservice if he doesn’t “grab the ruthless red”. MRP again:

At one job I had, I remember clearly a conversation with my new boss about the color pens I wanted. She suggested I consider ordering purple or green pens because she had heard that people tend to be intimidated by red pens.

I think the intimidation is particularly pointed if the corrections are numerous. It is, to a degree, independent of colour. This is why I sometimes reassure clients, if I’ve marked their text heavily, that many of the changes are minor and cosmetic — which they generally are — and that their writing isn’t as error-laden as it might initially appear to be. Such reassurance can be especially welcome if it’s the first time a writer has submitted material to an editor.

In a recent comment, I wrote that my own writing was informed by reading great and careful writers, and by following sensible guidance from authorities throughout history: this applies to editing too. The realm of English usage is not so much a chequerboard of right and wrong as a broad and complex terrain of shifting suitability. (There’s right and wrong too, of course.) I learned this gradually, and have gained experience enough to apply it; children and under-confident writers often haven’t, and unnecessary fault-finding from an unforgiving red pen can be a tough blow to their confidence.

The red pen is a powerful tool. Use it gently.

[Pencils from Wikimedia Commons; red and blue pills from The Matrix]