Inch Worm! Dead Spaniard! Synergy! Commercial color names—for everything from cosmetics to crayons to house paint—sure have gotten bizarre lately, haven’t they?
Or have they?
My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus takes a historical perspective and concludes that odd color names have been around for a long, long time—centuries, in fact—and for good reason. You’ll need to subscribe to read the full text; here’s something to tempt you:
Almost as soon as carmakers expanded beyond Henry Ford’s “any color as long as it’s black,” color namers got creative. In 1936, you could buy a new Cadillac in Thessalon Green, Cannon Smoke, Pomerang Brown, or Nakhoda Blue. In 1970, some Dodge models were available in Panther Pink, Go Mango (orange), and Sublime (a light, bright green); the Plymouth color chart that year included Vitamin C (orange), Sassy Grass Green, and Moulin Rouge (reddish-purple). Also in 1970, Ford went psychedelic with color names like Hulla Blue, Anti-Establish Mint, and Freudian Gilt. (Explore the Auto Color Library to see color charts for other models and years.)
And although the color names of contemporary cosmetics certainly push the boundaries of comprehension (for proof, see the Stupid Nail Polish Names blog), metaphorical color naming is—again—old hat. Revlon introduced vivid red Fatal Apple lipstick and nail polish in 1945, followed by Where’s the Fire? in 1950 and—most famously and enduringly—Fire and Ice (another bright red) in 1952. A rival cosmetics brand, Hazel Bishop, stuck with plain descriptive names like Dark Red. Revlon is still in business; Hazel Bishop disappeared as an independent brand in the early 1960s. Meanwhile, I’m Not Really a Waitress—a shimmery red introduced by OPI in 1999—is one of the best-selling nail enamels in history.
And here’s a little bonus story about color names, which I discovered after my VT deadline. (Thanks, Louise Mallory, and thanks, Google+!) The author is Scott Nesin, and the story is about his four-year-old son, who’s conceived an urgent but mysterious project that requires a trip to the hardware store.
I lead him to the small paint cans, having temporarily forgotten the do-it-yourself mode while deciding if I should let the impulse shopping go on. At the paints:
“Ok, what colors?”
“Red, and blue.”
“Ok, they have Colonial Red and Apple Red. You can see the colors on the labels at the top. Which do you want?”
“Apple Red. I like apples.”
He didn’t even glance at them. Who needs colored labels when the paints have such precise names?
One last color story, this one from Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, a wonderful 1948 movie that’s mostly a send-up of the advertising business. Besides Myrna Loy (featured in the clip), the movie stars Cary Grant, Melvyn Douglas, and Louise Beavers.