| Arts & Culture
Book Outtakes Is the Green You See, the Green I See?
As my brain absorbed these other names, the colors seemed to shift. The names themselves were changing how I saw the colors.
“Is the green you see the green I see?” My friend asked. We were seven or eight, and I think we believed if we sat long enough in the yellowing grass we would figure it out. Then, for almost two decades, I put aside the question of green.
My novel, Harmless Like You , follows an artist who abandons her son. The chapters are named after paint colors: Quinacridone Gold, Raw Indigo, Burnt Umber. The main character is Japanese American and so I wanted to title one chapter in Japanese. Any Japanese-English dictionary will tell you that 赤 means red and 緑 means green. But I wanted something precise.
I found my way to Sanzo Wada’s A Dictionary of Color Combinations, first published in Japan in the 1930s. My copy dates from 2011. In both original and reprint, each colour is given its name in Japanese and English. Ivory Buff is 白茶 (literally White Tea). Light Brown Drab is 梅鼠 (Plum Mouse). Grenadine Pink is 洗朱 (Washed Red). My Japanese is slow and it took a few minutes for me to figure out how to literally translate the Japanese. Yet as my brain absorbed these other names, the colors seemed to shift. Light Brown Drab got warmer when I thought of it as a purple mouse. Grenadine Pink softened as washed red. The names themselves were changing how I saw the colors.
Around the same time as Wada’s dictionary appeared, oceans away the first edition of The British Colour Council Dictionary of Colour Standards was published. It is unremittingly patriotic. It devotes a paragraph to whether a particular blue should be named after Cambridge or Eton. Garter blue takes its name from the Order of the Garter, the highest British order of chivalry and the color has been “carefully matched to the ribbon worn by the members of that most noble order.”
The British Colour Council Dictionary of Colours For Interior Decoration will tell you that for 800 years there has been a color called Beagle Green. Beagles are brown, black, and white—not even a little bit green. But the dictionary explains, ‘Beagles, the smallest English hounds, have been used for hare hunting since the Middle Ages . . . The velveteen jackets of the Hunt uniform were dyed this colour.’
The foreword of the British Colour Council’s first dictionary claims that its “aims and objects are to place color determination for the British Empire in British hands.” An alarming impulse, when one remembers that the year of publication was 1934. That year Hitler and Mussolini met in Venice and Japan invaded Manchuria. The air was thick with nationalism so why shouldn’t the British Colour Council not try to gain control of the rainbow itself?
This was not the first color dictionary to aspire to control through codification. The 1821 work Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours hoped to bring together science and art. The book is set out as a chart. Each colour is given a name, a pigment sample, and assigned an “animal,” “mineral,” and “vegetable” (plant). For example—Prussian Blue is ‘The Beauty Spot on Wing of Mallard Drake,’ ‘Stamen of Bluish Purple Anemone,’ and ‘Blue Copper Ore’.
Patrick Syme, who compiled the book, was a Scottish flower painter. But he based his charts on the work of the German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner. Werner had provided mineral but not animal or vegetable examples. So Syme supplied these. The Foreword expresses the hope that the book will recommend itself to geologists, agriculturalists, astronomers, and even morbid anatomists. Charles Darwin took a copy aboard the Beagle on his trip to see the unimaginable shades of other lands. This book was a tool he’d use to make sense of the shock of foreign feathers and fur.
This desire to catalog has not died. The 2017 Pantone Color of the Year was Greenery a “zesty-yellow green shade”—bloggers related it to succulents on Instagram and millennials at farmers’ markets.
By December 2017, I had forgotten the Pantone color of the year. But I bought a green scarf for the person I love. Was it Pantone getting inside my head? I can’t tell you. I only know that when I loop it around his neck, I am giving him Syme’s ripe pound pear, The British Colour Council’s mistletoe, Wada’s 海松 (stag seaweed.) I am giving him the forest we once walked through, tented by pine needles.
Is the green you see, the green I see?