Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I maintain a list of vocabulary words that I would like to learn. Among the hardest are words for colours, which are almost impossible to define in words. Sure, you can write "a dark grayish-brown," but will someone really be able to picture it in his mind?

Among my words are three shades of brown: fuscous, taupe (rhymes with "rope") and filemot (fill-mott). Fuscous and taupe both mean "brownish-grey," which gives them the distinction of combining the two most boring colours. If it came down to it, I think I would choose brown as even more boring than grey. It's the colour of dirt, after all, not to mention other natural substances like wood and, frequently, fur. It's also the colour you get when you mix all the other colours together. According to wikipedia, it's actually a mixture of red, orange, or yellow with black, but that's not the way I remember it when I played with fingerpaints, and it's not the colour my kids get when they mix together all colours of Playdoh (which they inevitably do, in spite of my admonitions that it will be more interesting if they keep them separate). Nothing screams "blah" like brown.

Nevertheless, we have many words for different shades of brown. There are common words, like khaki, tan, sandy (for light shades) or russet, chocolate, or auburn (for dark ones); obscure ones, like taupe, filemot, and sepia; and ones that those of us of a certain age remember from Crayola's 64-pack of crayons, like raw umber, burnt umber, and burnt sienna. Does anyone actually distinguish all these different colours? I'm not sure that khaki, tan, and sandy mean anything for me other than "light brown." For the record, here are some shades as defined by Wikipedia:

AuburnBeigeBronzeRaw umberBurnt sienna

Burnt umberChocolateCopperDesert sandKhaki

Sandy brownSepiaSiennaTanTaupe

Sepia is an interesting one. Portrait studios now offer you the opportunity to turn your beautiful, full-colour photographs into dull brown ones for an extra fee. If that doesn't sound like it makes sense, you understand my point of view. Making a photo sepia, or black and white (i.e., grey), makes it look older, but I'm not sure why that would be desirable outside of some specialist purposes (e.g., you wanted to pass the photo off as older). When you go to pick up your portraits, the studio will often have several extra sheets already made up that they will try to sell you; and, almost invariably, these sheets will be sepia or grey. Of all the nice things they can do with photographs nowadays, getting rid of the colour is not an "upgrade" that I would choose voluntarily.

I once knew a woman named Tawny, which is also shade of brown. I did a Google search for tawny to see what colour came up; unlike the other shades, this one turned up mostly pictures of women, usually showing a lot of skin. I don't know if the name Tawny is associated in the popular imagination with a certain type of woman; even if it isn't, would you want to name your daughter "brown"? It's much like the name ChloĆ«, which means green – another strange thing to call a girl. At least ChloĆ« is a pretty and exotic name, whereas Tawny is ordinary and sounds a little too close to "tawdry" for my tastes.

Brown as a last name is one of the most common in English. I'd bet it's more common than White, Black, or Green, and certainly than Blue. (The only person I've ever heard of named Blue was Oakland A's pitcher Vida Blue, which is certainly one of the most curious names in sports.) I can't recall anyone with the last name of Red, Orange, Purple, Scarlett, Mustard, Plum, or any other colour, although I would be glad to hear of them if they exist. I'm not aware of a college with the name of any of these colours except brown, and there are two shades represented: Brown and Auburn. Surely it's a coincidence, but it is fitting that colleges should be named the same as a stoic colour reminiscent of old portraits and brick buildings.

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