Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Colour my World

I have to search for colour names. Wikipedia has a good list, but I’ve also searched paint colour charts, make-up and fashion sites, and hair colourant lists to find the right word(s) to describe the colour I can see in my mind’s eye. I do like the synonyms that show the slight differences: for yellow, there’s daffodil, flax, lemon and mustard; for red there’s fire-engine, ruby, crimson, scarlet etc etc. I’m reminded of the Johnny Cash song ‘Forty Shades of Green’ (referring to my beloved Ireland, of course). One time when I was in Ireland, we tried to make a list of 40 different shades! IMO the standard names for colours are the best, since everyone knows what they mean. No point calling the heroine’s dress ‘Dublin Bay green’ (anyway, Dublin Bay is usually grey!) or ‘Paris green’ if no-one has a clue what those descriptions actually mean.

Must admit I don’t like ‘ornate’ descriptions of colour. Cliches can be boring – how many times have we read ‘eyes as blue as a summer sky’? But contrived, long-winded or eye-brow raising similes can be equally irritating. A couple of examples describing hair – ‘as blonde as a buttercup in a meadow’ (does that mean yellow?), ‘as blonde as a dirty cloud’ (what? was she grey? But no, the writer was supposedly describing her mother’s blonde hair when she was young). Just as a matter of interest, did you know that, in early colonial times in America, Puritans used no similes or metaphors in their writing, because these glorified the writer, not God. Southerners, however, used showy language in literature much more freely. Maybe I was a Puritan in an earlier existence, since I prefer to keep colour descriptions simple!

I once read a story where the author had obviously decided to use every possible variation of blue for the heroine’s eyes – cerulean, baby-blue, azure, sky-blue, denim, electric, sapphire etc – so much so that I got distracted from the story wondering what shade of blue her eyes would be on the next page! As with many things, sometimes less is more!


  1. I've been guilty of that last sin. I felt I needed LOTS of adjectives. I have since read about the virtues of writing without any adjectives (or adverbs). Then layer in genre-specific descriptions to make a satisfying read.

  2. Hi,

    Hee hee, Puritan, indeed. Hey, you'll be talking sack cloth and ashes next or "get thee to a nunnery". ;) Mind you, reading a book with every colour blue for MC's eyes, mind-boggling: gee a kaleidoscope in blue!


  3. I think everything can be used in moderation, Ana. Adjectives are necessary to modify nouns, but I do try to limit my use of too many adverbs.

    All the blues were in a fan-fiction story, Francine, not a published book, I'm glad to say (otherwise I would have been thinking the editor must have been having a bad day!).
    And I'm sure I would have been thrown out of a colonial Puritan community!