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.
I loved reading this as a person who likes orange. Nice reflection, thank you for sharing! 🙂
Thank you, Sowjanya. We are in the minority for liking orange, but there it is in great variety.
[…] essay, “The Names of Flame,” appears on Brevity today. I talk about colors and the questionable power of […]
I’m not the biggest fan of orange so I could live without it. But I did enjoy reading about where the word came from
It is the least favorite color, across the world. Blue is number one everywhere and for as long as it’s been tracked.
Quite interesting. Do you know why that is?
I wish I did.
I appreciate orange more and more as I get older. It’s such a powerful color.
And these sentences are fantastic:
“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.”
Oh, thank you!
Reblogged this on Her Headache and commented:
Colour blindness indeed. I miss seeing colour, every…single…day. Writing my own essays about colour – what it meant to me and what it still means now, and always, whether I can see it or not. This post is beautiful and I had to share on this #FlashbackFriday about the colours I still love so much.
Thank you! I am so sorry you have lost color vision. Years ago I was on a panel with a young man who first discovered he had no red/green vision when he joined the Marines. The genetic links are interesting. More recently, I met a person with no color vision (extremely rare). It is hard for me to imagine.
Nearly totally blind now, but I used to be a visual artist. This post was super interesting. I love red and orange and yellow.
In your heart you will always be a visual artist.
Beautiful piece, love the “glister”
Thank you, Kim. I am just finishing a quilt called “All that Glisters Is Not Gold” (the actual quote—usually altered to “glitters”).
I love these thoughts! Have you heard the Radiolab podcast episode about color? I think you’d really enjoy it.
Thank you. Listening now.
Nice, have learnt something about color
I am so glad! Thank you.
hi jan – I’m an orange fan too, have also written a few essays about color – it’s a rich & unlimited lode to draw from. Priscilla Long has written extensively on the topic too & has a new award-winning poetry collection – Holy Magic – with sections titled The Red Pear, Archaeology of Orange, Grape-Colored Figured Silk & so on – lovely work. best, alice
I will look for Long. Thank you.
Wonderful color essay–or some colors, that is. I also have written of color a bit since it influences me (us) greatly, and daily. But your captivating, informed viewpoint is excellent. I’d enjoy reading more–write your own work. Thanks for the essay!
So kind—thank you! I put a few of the essays on my blog. Just now I am making objects with colors more than words.
Perfectly reasonable to me.
When I was younger (like, up until I hit 50), I didn’t like bright colors, much less orange. Then, all of a sudden, I wanted everything to be pink, including my hair. Eventually my lust for pink faded and instead I started feeling drawn to orange. Not that I want orange hair (I’ve already had that awful unintended experience), but orange clothing, orange shoes, orange flowers, an orange sun. It’s brightness and warmth.
All this just to say, what a fascinating essay, Jan! Color gives such context to our lives. How wonderful of you to do such an analysis, and it sounds like your analysis is more in-depth than the book On Color. You should keep working on it and publish it. There cannot be too many books on color 🙂
Thanks, Marie. My color tastes have changed too. A particular shade of intense pink as an adolescent through vermillion and viridian, sage and peacock feathers, ochre and, as an adult, purples of all persuasions!
I feel fortunate to be surrounded by color. My mom told me once that when she was a girl, she and her sisters would watch the sunset and wish they had clothes in those colors. When I was a teenager, she had a closet full of polyester pants, a pair for every color imaginable 🙂
Wow. Here is where I brag (confess) I had a bell-sleeve and beer-bottom outfit designed (supposedly) by Cher when I was 14—stripes of purple, lime, shocking pink.
Glad to hear I wasn’t alone in my teenager’s sense of fashion 😉
Oh dear. “bell-bottom” not beer. (I came to drinking very late in life, but my typing remains atrocious.)