or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, February 19, 2010

Colour Theory

Here's a link to a tremendously interesting Slate slideshow about the colour pink and its history.

It just wouldn't be a Slate piece without an error of some sort, I guess, and there is one, on slide #6: in the sentence, "Just as the quick burst of a sakura's petals drop to the ground, the thinking goes, so must warriors be ready to fall unquestionably in battle," the word "unquestioningly" must surely have been intended.

That out of the way, the piece is fascinating, because the colour pink is so indelibly associated with girls in Western culture, and blue with boys, that it can be a bit of a shock to learn that it was not always that way: even less than a century ago, girls were often clad in blue, the reasoning being that it is a prettier, daintier colour (not to mention the signature colour of the Virgin Mary), while pink was for little boys, since it's a stronger, bolder colour, a diluted but still potent version of military, hematic red.

Even though children look good in bright saturated colours, baby clothes are historically often pastel for a simple reason: they're going to be washed a lot in strong detergent, and (until the advent of modern dyes) will fade, so they might as well start out pale rather than gradually looking more and more unkempt and wan. (When I'm making baby clothes for a baby of unknown sex, I generally knit them in pastel shades of white, yellow, and green--safe, genderless colours. But high-quality acrylic yarn, and, even better, machine-washable superwash wool, which don't fade, make bright fun colours a possibility too.)


Speaking of errors in Slate--and when am I not?--here's a sentence from a review of survival guides:

In a section on wounds, he shares a treatment for "mad dog" bite and another for lightening strike ("To revive one stunned by a thunderbolt, dash cold water over him").

Not only was the wrong word--off by a letter!--chosen, or mistyped and not corrected in editing, but "lightening" isn't even from the same root as "lightning": they are entirely unrelated etymologically. The two words entered English (well, Old English) in similar forms, quickly converged in spelling and pronunciation, and moved in lockstep ever since, but they still don't mean the same thing.

"To lighten" means "to relieve the burden of: to make lighter", and this "light" filtered into Old English as "leoht" from the various Germanic languages from Indo-European "legwh-", which had various connotations of lightness, agility, and ease of movement. (The same IE root turned into Latin "levis", which gave English such words as "levity" and "lever".)

The noun "light", on the other hand, is from IE "leuk-", which means "light" or "brightness", and this word managed to survive unmolested into modern English (through Greek "leukos", "white") in the word "leukocyte", "white blood cell". The various derivatives and relatives of "leuk-" refer to lightness or brightness in some way: Latin "lucere", "light", gave us "lucid" and "pellucid", "Lucifer" ("light-bearer"), "lucent" (and therefore "translucent"), and the name Lucius. (Latin "lux", "light", did not give rise to "luxury" or "deluxe": those are from "luxuria", "excess", one of the Seven Deadly Sins.)

There is a third sense of "light" in English, the verb "to touch down: to land", and this is related to the adjective "light", because when you alight from a horse, you lighten its burden.


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