The Names of Flame

October 16, 2020 § 30 Comments

by Jan Priddy

Five years ago, I created a folder on my computer titled COLORbook. My intention was to complete a series of essays about my personal and cultural understanding of color. The idea had been stirring in my head for a long time. I had written about orange ten years before. It is the color of a dying ancient cedar tree my friend Ann mourns. And old word tracing its lineage from fourteenth century English, back to Old French or perhaps Spanish through the Arabic naranj, the Persian narang, and eventually to the Sanskrit naranga, meaning orange tree, a word that might derive from an even earlier term meaning fragrant. Our word for the color orange and the fruit have an ancient co-existence, but the citrus fruit came first.

I had completed several chapters—blue sky and hot pink, color blindness and little black dresses—and had begun thinking about sending them out when I learned of the book On Color by David Scott Kastan with Stephen Farthing. It is a handsome book and makes me cross because I wish I’d written it.

It’s probably for that reason that I am arguing with it. There are marvelous lines like “The sensation of color is physical; the perception of color is cultural.” The book does a nice job of explaining color as wound into perception and culture. Homer’s “wine dark sea” seems to trouble a lot of people including these authors who desperately want Homer to have said the sea was blue. Maybe saying the sea was blue seemed entirely unnecessary?

I look at the ocean every day, for hours at a time. Perhaps the wine reference refers not to hue, but purely to darkness, richness. The ocean’s surface is various, it glisters and gleams, lies flat and dull, is blue or green or gray or purple. I have seen the water’s surface appear both dark and the color of wine.

But then another sort of confusion: “Not many things are orange” the book states by way of explaining why there was no word for the color “orange” in English until the fruit arrived in England. It was unnecessary, they suggest. Chaucer refers to a color “betwixe yelow and reed.” The author knew how to mix colors.

The skill is not so obvious as the authors claim. I have taught small children and older ones how to combine yellow and red to make orange—most do not immediately know. But the authors make a gigantic leap in claiming there was no need for the color name because “Not many things are orange . . .” Only autumn leaves, chickens and foxes, sunrise and sunset, rust and hair we call “red.” Fire. Apparently the word was necessary in India for millennia before it reached the British isles.

Fewer things are purple, but that word is very old in English, from the Old English word purpul, from Latin purpura, from the Greek porphura, the name of the Tyrian purple dye made from a Mediterranean shellfish. Homer mentions fabrics dyed purple but not orange sunsets.

Perhaps that is because so many things are orange?

Most afternoons I have watched the sky change color, the darkening sky blue overhead and shifting to orange on the horizon without passing either purple or green. Amazing. “How we are named and what we are called” is a phrase that runs around my head. The paradox of naming and valuing what we name, of naming and of un-naming as Ursula K. Le Guin imagines in her story “She Unnames Them” where Woman lifts the burden that names place upon living creatures.

We might be mistaken in what we assume about color—that white is the color of wedding dresses rather than of mourning, that “flesh” is a Crayola crayon, that what we trouble to name is the same now as then.

On the September morning that I write this, the sky is yellow, the sun blood-red, the sea a peculiar mix of gray and sooty orange. Not wine dark, but burnt toast. The West is ablaze and America seems to be the only people in the world who refuse to name climate change. I do not have all the names for this fire.

Orange is one of the oldest because so many things are orange.

Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and numerous publications. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she shelters in place in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon, writes, weaves, walks, and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE.

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