DEFINING COLORS.

Kory Stamper, the blogging Merriam-Webster lexicographer, has a wonderful post that starts with the poetry of the color entries in the Third International, so refreshing after spending your day “drowning in stuffy single-statement definitions”:

begonia n3 : a deep pink that is bluer, lighter, and stronger than average coral (sense 3b), bluer than fiesta, and bluer and stronger than sweet william — called also gaiety

These, it turns out, are the product of a complicated history having to do with (inter alia) the chief color consultant for both the Second and the Third, Isaac H. Godlove; after recounting that history, she goes on to the problem of how to define colors in general. Well worth your while.
And while I have your ear, don’t miss that rarest of phenomena, a new post at Polyglot Vegetarian! This one, Truffle, was sparked off by a comment of AJP’s in this LH thread, two years ago. The mills of PolyVeg grind slowly, but they grind exceeding delicious.

Comments

  1. Speaking of color, I’ve just met the fabulous Spanish verb “matizar,” which seems to mean (of colors, & particularly, of paints) to vary, blend, or match. Possibly one of your wonderfully learned readers can explain how it acquired such an odd and apparently contradictory range of meanings?

  2. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t see that these meanings are odd or contradictory in context: to get the exact shade you want, especially to make a batch of paint that exactly matches an already existing one, you may need to vary one that you have by blending in another colour. The English verbs to match and to vary focus on different purposes of the same basic activity of mixing and blending.

  3. No longer can a dictionary be succinct, factual and unimposing in an uber-learned, self-effacing way, it must now be poetic, refreshing (and less filling!) and shed “lightness” in those arcane linguistic corners heretofore exempt from the garish redecorative touches of the descriptionistic dilettantes. The quantifiable Mohs hardness of a diamond is less essential than knowing how Madonna’s rock sizes up next to Liz Taylor’s when compared to Ivana Trump’s. Pencil protector nerdism has given way to the breezy relativism of revisionist mediocrats. Compare the definition of “blue” in the First & Third International and ask yourself which definition Cezanne or Picasso would have best recognized…enough said.

  4. Hozo, you were born in the wrong era. What agonies you endure!

  5. AJP Polly says:

    I’m now a polyglot vegetarian myself. Perhaps not quite so poly as MMcM, but just as vegetarian. How many glots make a polyglot, anyway?
    knowing how Madonna’s rock sizes up next to Liz Taylor’s
    Madonna was probably wearing a minirock.

  6. agonies
    The style is thesaurus-driven, and to a certain extent reminiscent of Spiro Agnew’s: “descriptionistic dilettantes”, “revisionist mediocrats”. There is also a surfeit of lectern-thumping phrases consisting of two adjectives and a noun: “uber-learned, self-effacing way”, “arcane linguistic corners”, “garish redecorative touches”, “pencil protector nerdism”.
    Such a style is called gespreizt in the Old Country, and “stilted” in the New. Its function is to provide compensation for lack of content.

  7. Compare the definition of “blue” in the First & Third International

    1. Having the color of the clear sky, or a hue resembling it, whether lighter or darker; as, the deep, blue sea; as blue as a sapphire; blue violets, “The blue firmament.” Milton.

    1 a : of the color blue <blue violets> <as blue as a sapphire> b : having the color of the clear sky or the deep sea <the blue firmament> <the blue ocean>

  8. What’s a “pencil protector”, oh Grumbly one?

  9. @dearieme: At first I thought this was another sign that Grumbly was losing his grip on English, but no–he was quoting Hozo. Hozo meant pocket protector.
    William Safire wrote speeches for Agnew, by the way.

  10. Note the xkcd color survey results:
    http://xkcd.com/color/rgb/
    Lots of delicate distinctions, particularly among the greens.

  11. Just last week I re-read all my Dilbert comic collections. That’s how I knew what was probably meant by “pencil protector” – although it’s the shirt, not the Schreibzeug that needs protection.

  12. Thanks, Ø. What a sensible wee invention: I’ve never seen one. The first American engineer I knew well carried a cigarette packet in his breast pocket, but I can’t remember where he carried his Zippo.

  13. About division by a common language, I’ve just seen a reference to a “lamb emasculator”: I take it that that is identical to the British “castrating ring” of which there used to be a wonderful display at the Boots in Inverness.

  14. The style is thesaurus-driven, and to a certain extent reminiscent of Spiro Agnew’s
    A brilliant aperçu; now that you’ve mentioned it, it’s obvious, and Hozo will always bring Agnew to my mind.

  15. lamb emasculator
    Still riding the wave of topicality as it rolls out to sea, I may mention that the German Supreme Court has been requested by the government to declare urgently on whether current laws permit little human lambs to have their zizis cut up. The Cologne Landgericht recently ruled that circumcision constituted bodily harm and so was illegal.
    I’m not sure what the significance of this ruling is, since I have read that surgical interventions of any kind per se constitute bodily harm, and are permitted only by special legal dispensation. In any case, the government wants the Supreme Court decision so that if necessary it can pass new laws allowing circumcision specifically for religious reasons.
    Jews and Muslims here are in an uproar, and the right-thinking public is roaring with them. This is a perfect example of the kind of event the media need in August for headlines – the important people who do important reportable things being for the most part on vacation.
    What tickles me pink about this is that the right-thinking public has spent the last few years being incensed about “female genital mutilation” in Africa and elsewhere. But then “circumcision” sounds so much nicer than “mutilation”.
    What’s a little skin between monotheists, you may ask ? It is odd, though, that people can still believe fervently that having bits of their children cut off is a Good Thing. But that’s the way it is.

  16. Three cheers for the Cologne Landgericht!
    Pity a backdating of the decision would have no effect. Most of us would have to be grandfathered instead.

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    GS: the surprising/controversial thing about the ruling is that it denied the general principle (which covers everything from major surgery to having a little girl’s ears pierced) that parents are presumptively competent to consent on their child’s behalf to the sorts of acts that would be presumpatively unlawful if done to an adult’s body without that adult’s consent. Here in New York, there’s apparently a loophole where ear piercing is not supposed to be done on those under 18 w/o parental permission (my older daughter had it done at age nine; I came along and signed some forms) but more exotic/controversial body piercings of minors are comparatively unregulated (subject to the passage of proposed new legislation) and thus require no such permission. I got one of my ears pierced in Germany when I was 17 (along with another American kid on an I will if you will basis), and we weren’t asked for proof of age or parental consent or anything as long as we had the cash (I think it something like 20DM for the both of us). I’m pretty sure we don’t know the right idiom and said something in German that was quite preposterous (“we would prefer in our ears holes to have”), but we communicated successfully enough to get the result desired.

  18. J.W.: you have turned a spotlight on my ignorance of the legal aspects, showing it to be deeper than I thought. I’ll try to find out more. All I know is that parents are demanding their cut for having contributed to the production of sons.
    A few grams of flesh, would it be ? Yesterday I learned that there is a species of hummingbird whose individuals weigh 2 grams each.

  19. AJP Crown says:

    I found a book about feathers in the bird section of a bookshop in Charing Cross Road, but it was too technical so I didn’t buy it. It had a black cover.

  20. Thanks Mr Grumbly,
    That you deem my paltry palavering worthy of comment is praise enough. Just dancing with the girl who brung ma…stilted square dancing by your leave.

  21. Ouch…a silence of the Agnews m’impose for the couperet surely h-eweth.

  22. This Bozo reminds me of a so-called artist in Victoria who gets commissions to produce public sculpture. When letters to the editor pile up to the tune of ‘What makes this guy think this is art?’ he replies saying he enjoys being talked about, and thinks controversy is a wonderful thing.
    Could he be a clone (disguise) of the immature troll we dare not name?

  23. It had a black cover.
    That’s knocked me off my sea-faring surfboard (vide wave of topicality). I can’t figure out how to pick it up and run with it – even if I could run on water, which supposedly is easier than walking.

  24. William Safire wrote speeches for Agnew, by the way.
    Agnew is remembered primarily for his pretentious way of speaking. Whether his speeches were written by Safire or the Virgin Mary, Agnew made a fool of himself by delivering them. As Helmut Kohl famously remarked: Entscheidend ist, was hinten rauskommt [what counts is what comes out the back end].

  25. empty: you say that Safire wrote speeches for Agnew, but of course I don’t know what-all reasons you had for saying it. You might now claim that you “merely wanted to pass this information on, and nothing more”, and then criticize me for “reading something into what was intended merely as a bit of information, and zooming off with it into the wild blue yonder”.
    Such a response – if you were inclined to make it – would motivate me to expand on certain curious and important features of communication and information. We would be moving into Luhmann territority, in fact. To paraphrase Leibniz: “Why do people say something rather than nothing ?”
    Just a friendly statement of intent …

  26. marie-lucie says:

    iakon’s comment brings up this memory:
    A few years ago I spent some time in Tucson, Arizona. I did not know that there was a controversy raging about “public art” as produced by a sculptor who had submitted winning designs on the theme of “water” (a scarce commodity in Tucson). I am not sure if ‘sculptor’ is the right word, because the works were not conventionally sculpted but perhaps molded of what appeared to be a kind of composite, reddish-brown, slightly polished concrete incorporating various kinds of stone, giving it a somewhat tweedy appearance.
    The first work consisted of a vertical cylinder, about the size of a largish person, topped by what first looked to me like enormous splayed toes – as if the cylinder was a leg held upright from a lying position, with perhaps three or four feet splayed horizontally in every direction from the stylized leg: at first sight it made me think of a cartoon or a comic book, since I did not know about the art project yet. I certainly did not think about “water” gushing out of a pipe, which was presumably the inspiration. The second project had just been installed to the ire of the neighbourhood. Like the first one, it seemed to have started as a cylinder of about the same diameter but much longer, mostly lying on the ground, but with a kink in the middle which appeared to have broken, spilling some of the material. Here the inspiration must have been a water hose with a kink and a leak, but at best it looked like a very large piece of sausage which had suffered during cooking, at worst like was hinten rauskoomt, as Helmut Kohl put it and as the neighbourhood saw it. I don’t know if it is still around.

  27. AJP Crown says:

    It was the dust cover that was black. I just wondered what kind of graphic designer gives a book on feathers a mainly solid black cover.

  28. Any color other than black might raise a charge of favoritism towards a particular plumage. You can’t be too careful nowadays – there’s always some bird-brain waiting for an opportunity to complain that his rights have been ruffled.

  29. If this is it, it appears that it was meant to be iridescent.

  30. (Maybe not, since I don’t see how it could be “too technical.”)

  31. My sister has said she doesn’t see much difference between circumcision and female genital mutilation, and I don’t see why she doesn’t see it. Clitoridectomy is like chopping off the glans penis, not trimming off a bit of flesh around the edges. Like infibulation, it has the express purpose of inhibiting sexual activity. I recall that around 1900 circumcision was recommended to reduce masturbation, but I don’t think many people believe that nowadays; it’s just an idiotic, relatively harmless religious custom. Now, if Australia wanted to ban subincision, I’d say yeah, do it! Brrrrr.

  32. Treesong: Clitoridectomy … has the express purpose of inhibiting sexual activity. … circumcision … [is} just an idiotic, relatively harmless religious custom
    Inhibiting sexual activity is also relatively harmless. At any rate, a lot of people in a lot of cultures put a lot of time and effort into it – one might say they do so religiously. On the other hand, it might even serve some purposes or other, who knows ?
    Perhaps you object to clitoridectomy as an inappropriate way to inhibit sexual activity ? What part of the female body could be “trimmed” off, on your view, so that this would count as idiotic and relatively harmless ? Ladies, cast your votes !
    Of course the whole business of trimming and mutilating children could be regarded as a form of child abuse (“bodily harm”) practiced by certain religious groups. That is the substance of the decision by the Kölner Landgericht, as I have now found out. The court says that the parents’ freedom to exercise the religion of their choice does not take precedence over the child’s right to “physical inviolability” (körperliche Unversehrtheit).
    So the Supreme Court and the legislators are going to have a hard time of it over the next few months, their calves being lunged at morning and night by barking Christians, Jews, Muslims and right-thinkers. This is going to be better than the Circus.
    Does anyone know Muslim theological opinion on the question of whether one is reunited with one’s prepuce after death ? Does my prepuce stake out a claim, sot that I merely have follow it ? Or could it happen that it goes to heaven, and I to hell ?

  33. Meanwhile, what about the global debt crisis ? Will there be time enough to discuss and perhaps even do something about it, while prepuces are still causing such a commotion ? I say: cut debt, not willies !

  34. marie-lucie: [Entscheidend ist,] was hinten rauskommt, as Helmut Kohl put it
    I perhaps should have explained that this is an infelicitous formulation, not intended by Kohl to be taken in the way it was seized upon by the media. What Kohl meant to say was of course: “the results are what counts”. What he actually said can be understood in that way, but also in the other way.
    Nobody would have blinked an eye if he had said, for example: “… was (letztlich) dabei rauskommt“. Or just: “Nur das Ergebnis zählt“. The latter is rather hackneyed, though. I can imagine that he wanted a bit of innovation, started with “Entscheidend ist, …” and improvised the rest.

  35. perhaps molded of what appeared to be a kind of composite, reddish-brown, slightly polished concrete
    This is precisely the material this ‘artist’ in Victoria uses! Did they go to the same school? or did the material or process ‘go viral’ through all art schools? Are we indulging here in something similiar to the ‘presciptive/descriptive’ reaction?
    Or are we just living too long?

  36. marie-lucie says:

    iakon, could it even be the same guy??? I know nothing about the perpetrator of those monstrosities in Tucson, and such ‘artists’ tend to come and go to peddle their stuff.
    Where is our resident cimentier to give his opinion?

  37. empty: you say that Safire wrote speeches for Agnew, but of course I don’t know what-all reasons you had for saying it. You might now claim that you “merely wanted to pass this information on, and nothing more”, and then criticize me for “reading something into what was intended merely as a bit of information, and zooming off with it into the wild blue yonder”.
    I don’t think I would ever make such a claim, unless I was pulling your leg. The “merely” doesn’t sound like me.
    If you were to react to a statement of fact on my part by jumping to conclusions about my reasons for mentioning it and then arguing with those reasons, then I might criticize that response.
    I don’t think I had a mere reason. Maybe I was hoping, in a mild way, to stir something up, but I wasn’t looking for fight.
    Such a response – if you were inclined to make it – would motivate me to expand on certain curious and important features of communication and information. We would be moving into Luhmann territority, in fact. To paraphrase Leibniz: “Why do people say something rather than nothing ?”
    Yeah, I was afraid you might misunderstand and think I was taking issue with what you said about Agnew. It’s also true that I didn’t go out of my way to avoid such a misunderstanding. Was I trying to fire you up with Luhmann-osity? Or subconsciously making a pun on Safire/sapphire because of Hozo’s mention of diamonds. I believe that I believed that I merely [no, not merely!] wanted to show off a tidbit of knowledge and at the same time see if the mention of Safire (remembered more for his language-maven-column-writing than his speechwriting among those who frequent language) would stir anybody to an interesting response.
    Just a friendly statement of intent …
    I did not provide a statement of intent, but my intent was never unfriendly.

  38. Speaking of “Why is there something rather than nothing”: Some months ago I saw a deliciously scathing review in the Sunday NYT of a book that purported to answer that question using quantum mechanics. I can remember neither author nor title nor reviewer. Does anyone remember it?

  39. I thought at first I knew what you were talking about, but it turned out I was thinking of this review of Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?, which is 1) much more recent (August 2) and 2) entirely favorable.

  40. Thank, you, MMcM. That’s it.

  41. I was aware of ‘my’ guy working in Victoria somewhere between the turn of the millenium and the year 5.
    When did you see ‘your’ guy’s droppings?

  42. I recently listened to a 2-CD set of Anton Zeilinger talking about his work in quantum physics. In the section titled “Information” on CD 1, he speaks about information, observation and reality – in a manner to make Luhmannous ears prick up. His belief (“not shared by everybody”) is that information is the central concept of quantum physics:

    Die Information definiert sogar, was Wirklichkeit sein kann, aber die Wirklichkeit gibt es nicht vor der Beobachtung. Kann ich überhaupt zwischen Wirklichkeit und Information unterscheiden ? Vielleicht sind sie zwei Seiten ein und derselben Medaille. … Ich denke, wir sollten in der Quantenphysik in einer neuen Richtung denken … Ich sage nicht, daß alles nur Information ist. Ich sage nicht, daß alles nur in unserem Kopf abläuft, aber [Wirklichkeit und Information] sind in irgendeiner Form dasgleiche.

    It may take you a while to adjust to his Austrian accent, although it’s not that strong. Hat likes that kind of thing anyway, as I recall. Zeilinger stresses a few words in a way I had never heard before – MatheMAtik, LAbor – and says konzeptiv where the environment of yours truly says konzeptionell or begrifflich.
    These and other CDs with talks by contemporary scientists, but also with historical recordings of Meitner, Planck, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Einstein, are produced by the German publisher supposé.

  43. Could someone provide prescriptivist guidance about the words “titled” and “entitled” in the context of, say: “In the section titled ‘Information’” ? I often have an urge to write “entitled”, but also a counter-urge telling me that “entitled” is not right here.

  44. The people who believe that words only mean one thing and ignore five hundred years of English usage will tell you that entitled only means having a claim to something and that titled must be used in that case.
    Fowler didn’t want entitled to to mean bound to or liable to something bad, but only having a right to something good.

  45. Demmit, one of my links is busted. It should be: his work in quantum physics

  46. Thanks, MMcM. I myself don’t hold the view that words only mean one thing, or should do so. However, we all know how important it is to say “No !” to something when our guts are unhappy about it.
    To avoid subsequent self-recrimination and ulcers, I’d better heed that little pyloric voice telling me not to write “entitled”. Others with more robust digestive tracts will do as they please, as they always do.

  47. MatheMAtik, LAbor
    I may once have heard LAbor from a Swiss German speaker, though – I’m not sure.

  48. m-w.com, on the other hand, wants to reserve titled for people, using entitled for books and such.
    A book has a title. It also has an author, who probably has a title too….

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