Many shades of colors are named for vegetables and other food products: Cream, mustard, orange, rose, plum, cornflower avocado, etc. Does this matter in a setting in which the color's namesake doesn't exist? For example, would the use of "cream-colored" in a setting that has never included mammals bother you? Would "off-white", "dark yellow", "light red", and so on work as acceptable substitutes for more specific colors?
These are similar questions as those asked in Edward Douglas' Were there bicycles in ancient Egypt? thread, but I wonder if the genre makes a difference. I'd think that fantasies with medieval themes and historical fiction would require stricter "translations" to our current language(s) than speculative fiction showing cultures that have never existed.
What are your thoughts?
*Edited to clarify one of my questions.
[This message has been edited by aspirit (edited February 22, 2010).]
I think there's gong to be a big difference depending on whether the word has come to predominnatly mean a colour, or whether it's still mostly used for the original object. I'd cite "avocado", for instance, as something you should really avoid as a colour description unless you do have avocados; there ar eplenty of other ways you can find to describe that colour if you really need to. "Orange", on the other hand, is pretty much the only thing you CAN call the colour, and while everyone knows that orange is a fruit, everyone also thinks of the colour without assuming it can only be called that because there is a fruit called that.
Ultimately, you have to remember you are writing for a modern audience, and you will always hae to find a balance between using modern but anachronistic terms vs authentic but archaic ones. As with all things, the precise location of this balance will be different for every writer and every reader, so you won't please everyone.
Seconding tchernabyelo. Most people will regard "avocado" as a reference to the fruit. "Cream" probably wouldn't be given a second thought, although you could say "ivory" if you don't have a problem with tusked animals in your world. Just look at any color pallet from a paint store and you're bound to find an appropriately-named color that won't be anachronistic. But, you have to be careful of getting too obscure. If your readers have to go traipsing off to the nearest Sherwin-Williams supplier to find out what you mean by "jovial," you're better off just saying "peach."
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The basic technical colors in our world without fruit, are red, blue, green, magenta, cyan, yellow, black and white. Everything can be made from those colors. Purple and orange are there, but it depends on whether you are projecting light, or applying color to a surface.
The more likely a color is in the world, the more likely it might be used. Also keep in mind that a hunter might not know the difference between Eggshell or cream and would just say white. An interior decorator on the other hand would have six dozen names for shades of white.
There are really two questions one must ask. How important is the color to the person, and what is available to describe the color. Some of our color names might not even be noticed by the reader. I would not be shocked by orange, lemon, or lime. Since I don't read critically, I might not even notice avacado. How new is your world?
One might need to use soemthing like. the fruit had a dark green skin but a yellow tinted green flesh.' "Ah, You found a globby." And then use globby through the rest of the story to describe that avacado color.
I'd have to say breaking down colors into divisions marked by the color of fruits and vegetables would make one's writing overly ornate and wordy.
Further, I'd also have to say that, if said fruit or vegetable isn't present in the SF / fantasy world you're trying to create, introducing it in a descriptive passage would kill the mood and suspension of disbelief you're trying to create.
Oh, another idea...this is a great way to introduce more elements of your setting. "It was a deep green, like the canopy of the Xtuchul fire-breathing beasts found out west near the sea." Or "it was dark, dark brown, not unlike the color of the sewage locker that Joe had to empty as part of his jail term."
I got to thinking about the color "burgundy." (I washed out a burgundy work shirt this morning.) Seems to me using the word, and having it understood, would involve a connection with the red-colored wine it derivers from, and the region of Europe from which that wine (originally) comes from.
I see "magenta" is mentioned above as a primary color---first off, when the primary color spectrum is divided by seven, it's usually "fuschia" which gets the nod---but it's usually divided by six, not seven, red-orange-yellow-green-blue-violet, and black and white don't figure into it at all. Second off, it was named after the Battle of Magenta (Italy, 1859), which had just taken place when the dye that first produced it was discovered, but the color itself has no particular connection with the place or the battle.
I do concede, quite willingly, that names for things will often linger long after their origins are forgotten.
rstegman is referring to technical applications of color.
If you're working with light (as on a computer monitor), every color is created by the mixture of red, green, and blue light.
If you're working in print, everything is created with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black pigment.
He wasn't actually dividing up the spectrum into seven colors. Instead, he was dividing it up in two different ways: RGB and CMYK.
But I like the whole exploration of the origin of our names for colors. It's why I think we, as readers, need to give writers a lot of slack in word choices. My basic approach is to see if the word is used as a label or a metaphor. To me, saying "it was avocado colored" is a metaphor, while "cream colored" is not, simply because the definition of avocado as a color isn't in common usage, and so it is tightly bound to the fruit in our minds.
I knew that...I just didn't think to mention it. How you mix paint is different from how you mix light, and both are different from how you mix on a computer screen.
There's a color called "Prussian blue"---I think, but don't know for sure, that the naming of the color comes from their military uniforms circa 1880. A cartoon show I used to watch occasionally had some characters with blue fleshtones---I used to like to think they were Prussians. (Maybe that's where the characters in "Avatar" come from.)
I have had a similar problem that I posted on this board. I could link it, but I'm lazy. I was asking if I should say a character has a Bowie knife if the character lives in a world where Mr. Bowie never existed (knife guy or singer!). I came away from the whole argument with the feeling that I should (generally) just use the word the reader knows if there is no easy substitute.
With colors, I question the need for being so specific and I'd say one man's eggplant is another man's deep purple and another man's plum.