Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Color My Mother Chartreuse

When I was a graduate student in physics, a friend of mine (who was more into art and poetry) invited me over to dinner at his place. While his wife was busy in the kitchen, we were chatting near a window in the late afternoon sunlight. Suddenly, he pointed at a bowl of fruit on a table near the window and asked me why the shadow it cast was colored purple and not black. Looking back on it, I think it was a test—that art vs. science thing. Nonetheless, I was in a profoundly philosophical mood and immediately rejoined: "It's an optical illusion. What's for dinner?" It would be another decade before I would even begin to realize how much I did not understand about color. I had no inkling then that vision and color perception are computational processes, that the brain is a differential analyzer and computed differences carry relative errors (perceptual illusions).

More recently, in a faint reprise of that illuminating but ancient episode, I was amazed to learn from Nathan and Giordano that the naming of colors is a similarly profound process, and since they are both experts, I could not be as dismissive with them as I was with my arty friend. On the contrary, I was forced to reflect on how I personally came to learn certain color names. In that landscape, my mother cuts a dominant figure.

My mother emigrated with her family from Glasgow, Scotland to Melbourne, Australia after her father was laid off from the Clydeside shipyards during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Naturally, they met the same economic depression in Australia. As a consequence, the older of the five children were forced to find work in Melbourne to support the family. Thus, my mother had to leave school at age 15 (legal, but a minor tragedy) and was apprenticed to a milliner. There, she learned about dyed fabrics, like felt, and how to match it with a variety of other colored fabrics; not to mention learning how to mechanically fashion an actual hat out of those colored fabrics.

Decades later, by the time I was midway through primary school, my mother re-entered the workforce to supplement our family income. Since my mother only wanted a part-time job, one of my aunts offered her a sales position in the successful dress shop that she owned. This meant my mother had to be up to speed with the latest fashion and color trends of the season, be able to mix and match different colored fabrics and, perhaps more importantly for clinching a sale, be able to match fabric combinations with the customer's coloring (hair, eyes, skin tone, etc.). None of this would have presented a problem because of the knowledge she had already acquired in her previous life as a milliner. She was a good match.

The reason I remember these events is because it was around this time that I started hearing strange words at the dinner table. Such words as: vermilion, maroon, turquoise, lavender, puce and chartreuse. It was those last two that really stuck with me because I could never seem to get their meaning straight in my head. The other names I was able to register fairly easily. Lavender was the same name as the plant we had growing in our garden, so I could literally see (and smell) that color. Vermillion and maroon turned out to be shades of red, which is my favorite color, so they got resolved swiftly. But puce and chartreuse I could never register no matter how many times I heard them. Unlike the other color names, there never seemed to be any convenient reference examples. My mother would sporadically utter those color names, I would hear them, I would recall that I had heard those words before, but they would just sit there in my mind: familiar but unresolved.

It's worth noting that, as a child, there's a tendency to live with some words and phrases having jumbled associations. For example, I had a great-aunt named May and her husband was named Bob. My father would say to me, "Time to get ready. We're going over to May and Bob's" (place). I heard this as may-and-bobs (a single word), which sounded to me like may-and-aise (mayonnaise). For the longest time, these two "words" were strongly associated in my mind. Similarly, the color term puce sounded very much like puke and therefore I registered it as a rather disgusting color without ever seeing it (not what I think today).

Asking my mother to explain by example seems like the obvious thing to do, and God knows I asked my father to explain things, about a million times a day. But that course of action would have been unwise in this case. For one thing, it would prove that I was snooping on the conversation and that might have meant my mother would become more cautious about what she said in the future. Keeping quiet at the dinner table meant I could potentially overhear any juicy bits—and believe me—there were quite a few of those. So, that price would have seemed too high.

For sure I looked those words up in a dictionary then, as well as many times since, but it really doesn't help with color names because it merely replaces one abstract word with another (for me, anyway) and I cannot recall the definition when I need it—which is next to never. It seems vital to make the visual association (probably more than once) to get it to stick, but I only heard those particular color names from my mother when she was talking to my father. Although I attended A-grade schools, I surely never learnt these more exotic color names in the classroom, and I most definitely never heard them used in the schoolyard. Even our standard issue coloring pencils came as a box set of 72 shades that we always referred to by number, not by name. Moreover, I should stress that I was mostly not paying attention to the adult conversation going on at the dinner table. In this casual verbal fog, if the word association occurred easily, I got it. If not, too bad because there was no necessity to resolve such weird words. I was certainly not going to throw the word chartreuse around at school, for fear of being beaten to within an inch of my life due to showing off. So, thanks to my mother, the color name chartreuse lodged in my memory but remained dormant and fuzzy for lack of reference and usage.

Indeed, it was only a few years ago, while I was teaching in Grenoble, that I was introduced to Chartreuse the liqueur and the local abbey where it originated. In this way, the word chartreuse finally became resolved for me. Well, almost. There is green and yellow chartreuse—no wonder I was confused! So, my mental reference for chartreuse has finally become the liqueur (although I prefer Liqueur de Chataigne as an digestif). I continue to suffer from puce deficit. But it's clear that it was not like that for my mother, in particular, or women in general. Their associations for color names come from a wide variety of experienced colors that include colored fabrics. How else could my mother have successfully sold dresses to other women in my aunt's shop? And this dynamic is supported by recent research that suggests an extended color vocabulary enables women to perceive the world more richly than men. Listen to this April 2011 BBC interview with Prof. Galina Paramei starting at 8:08 minutes. I can attest to my mother completely outclassing both my father and me when it came to the business of colors.

I'm certain that my mother probably sold hundreds of chartreuse dresses without ever knowing the true origin of that color name. And she would've been green with envy at my having visited the French monastery. Conversely, I never sold a dress in my life (and I don't intend to start now) but, thanks to my illustrious HP colleagues, I know more about the science of color naming than either my mother or I could ever have visualized.


  1. interesting article and nice title.

  2. A wonderful tribute to your mother. There is no greater gift than that of an exceptional intellect combined with true love. Beautifully written.

  3. I'm a postgraduate design student and I'm doing research about how we communicate colour to each other, looking at some of the issues with unserstanding colour names, exactly as described in the post.
    I have a survey that I am doing for my research, it would be great if people visiting this site would take part, I need as many people as possible so that I can get some interesting results.