Most of the basic English names for colors—like red, yellow, green, and blue—are amongst the oldest recorded words in our language and can be traced right back to the Old English period. One exception to that rule is the color orange, which didn’t begin to appear in the language until after oranges (the fruit) were imported into Britain from Europe in the Middle Ages. Before then, what we would describe as orange today had just to be called either “red” or “yellow” (or, if you wanted to be really specific, “red-yellow”). But the English language being as enormous as it is, a predictably enormous vocabulary of words have been invented, borrowed, and accumulated over the centuries to describe almost every color and shade imaginable—from the precise color of a bear’s ears, to the murky green of goose droppings. Nineteen brilliantly-named examples of colors you’ve probably never heard of are listed here.
The 1897 guide House Decoration, Whitewashing, Paperhanging, Painting, Etc. includes, in a chapter dedicated to mixing oil paints, “a list of new colors for ladies’ dresses,” among which is listed australien. Inspired by the rusty color of the rocks and deserts of the Australian outback, the name australien was used by dressmakers and fashion houses in late Victorian England for a deep orange color.
The color of a ripe banana? That’s banan.
Bastard-amber is the name of an amber-colored spotlight used in theaters to produce a warm peach or pink glow on stage. It’s often used to recreate sunlight, or to give the illusion of dawn or dusk.
The drake in question here is the male mallard, a species of duck found across North America, Europe, and Asia. The males have an iridescent bottle-green head and neck, which gave its name to rich green-colored dye called drake’s-neck in the early 18th century.
5. DRUNK-TANK PINK
Drunk-tank is the name of a bright shade of pink that has been the subject of a number of studies on the effects of colors on human temperament since the mid-1960s. This particular color—also known as Baker-Miller pink, after the two U.S. Navy officers who invented it—has been demonstrated in numerous experiments to have a calming influence, and so is often used in prisons and police holding cells to help keep inmates relaxed and to discourage unruly behavior.
Falun is a small city in central Sweden renowned for its copper mining industry. Since the mid-16th century (at least), all of the wooden homes, barns, outhouses and other buildings in and around Falun have been traditionally painted a deep rust-red color known as falu that is manufactured from the iron-rich waste materials left over from the mines.
As the dyeing industry developed in the 19th century and was able to produce more and more colors, dressmakers and designers were left to concoct a whole range of weird and wonderful names for the new colors at their disposal. Flame-of-burnt-brandy was just one of them, described in 1821 by one ladies’ magazine as a mixture of “lavender grey, pale yellow, and dark lilac.” Other equally evocative names dating from the same period include dragon’s blood (a deep purplish-red), d’oreille d’ours (a rich brown, literally “bear’s ears”), elephant’s breath (steel grey) and flamme de Vesuve ("the flame of Vesuvius," or the color of lava).
Not just another word for anything ginger-colored, gingerline is actually a 17th century English alteration of the Italian word for "yellow," giallo, and describes a rich orange-yellow. According to one description, it refers very precisely to the color of ripe kumquats.
Incarnadine is an etymological cousin of the adjective "incarnate," meaning “having bodily form.” In this sense it literally means flesh-colored, but Shakespeare used it to mean blood-red in Macbeth, and nowadays it’s usually used to refer to a rich crimson or dark-red color.
Not, as you might think, the color of a Labrador dog, labrador is actually a shade of blue that takes its name from the mineral labradorite, a turquoise form of feldspar.
Lusty-gallant was originally the name of a dance popular in Tudor England, but somehow, in the late-1500s, its name became attached to a pale shade of red, similar to coral pink. Quite how or why this happened is unclear, but according to the Elizabethan writer William Harrison, dressmakers at the time had a habit of giving increasingly bizarre names to the colors of their clothes in the hope of making them more appealing to buyers. In his Description of England, written in 1577, Harrison lists the names of several “hues devised to please fantastical heads,” including “gooseturd green, pease-porridge tawny, popinjay blue, lusty-gallant, [and] the-devil-in-the-head.”
Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766) was a French rococo artist known for a series of portraits of women from the court of Louis XV of France depicted as characters from Greek mythology. Despite achieving enormous popularity during his lifetime—his contemporaries thought his work so exquisite that they even accused him of painting with makeup rather than paint—Nattier is relatively little-known today, but he lives on in the name of a deep shade of slate-blue that he used in a number of his paintings, most notably a portrait of The Comtesse de Tillières (1750), nicknamed “The Lady in Blue.”
Pervenche is the French word for periwinkle, which came to be used in English in the 19th century as another name for the rich purplish-blue color of periwinkle flowers.
Fortunately, when William Shakespeare wrote of a "puke-stocking" in Henry IV: Part 1 (II.iv), he didn’t mean anything having to do with vomit. In 16th century England, puke was the name of a high quality woolen fabric, which was typically a dull, dark brown color.
Unsurprisingly sang-de-boeuf, or “oxblood,” is the name of a rich shade of red that was originally a blood-colored pottery glaze made by heating copper and iron oxide at a very high temperature. Although the name sang-de-boeuf dates back no further than the late 19th century, the technique used to manufacture oxblood glazes was first developed as far back as the 1200s in China.
Popular amongst Renaissance artists, sinoper or sinople was an artist’s pigment containing particles of hematite, an iron-rich mineral that gave it a rich rust-red color. Its name comes from the town of Sinop on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, from where it was first imported into Europe in the late Middle Ages.
Verditer is both an old fashioned name for verdigris, the green rust-like discoloration of copper and brass, and the name of blue-green pigment dating from the 1500s. Its name, which is derived from the French verte-de-terre, or "green of the earth," is today used in the name of a bright turquoise songbird, the verditer flycatcher, which is native to the Himalayas.
Watchet is a very pale blue color, similar to sky blue. According to folk etymology, the color takes its name from the town of Watchet on the coast of Somerset in southwest England, the cliffs around which appear pale blue because they are rich in alabaster. As neat a story as this is, however, it’s much more likely that watchet is really derived from waiss, an old Belgian-French word for royal blue.
Zaffre is the name of an ancient blue pigment originally produced by burning ores of cobalt in a furnace. Its name was borrowed into English from the Italian zaffera in the 17th century, and is ultimately descended from the Latin word for “sapphire.”