Here’s something that made me laugh recently when somebody shared it on Facebook.
It’s from a page called ‘Men’s Humor’, which I initially found surprising, since on the face of things it’s a joke at men’s expense: it’s saying men don’t normally get to name eyeshadow colours because their colour vocabulary is so limited. Once they’ve used up basic colour terms like ‘orange’, ‘pink’ and ‘purple’, they’ll be forced to fall back on unappealing comparisons with meat, ‘spoiled milk’ and (ew) ‘diarrhoea’.
But on reflection that’s only part of what the joke is doing. It’s also indirectly poking fun at the names conventionally given to make-up colours, which are absurd in a different way. From that perspective the joke is on women, who are suckers for a flowery name–they wouldn’t buy an eyeshadow in ‘pork’, but they’d be happy to shell out for one in ‘tea rose’ or ‘autumn sunrise’. When it comes to colour-names, cluelessness is proof of manliness. Real men don’t know words like ‘taupe’; they have more important things to worry about than the difference between ‘lavender’ and ‘mauve’.
Some readers may recognise that last bit an allusion to Robin Lakoff’s 1970s classic Language and Woman’s Place. Lakoff put non-basic colour terms like ‘taupe’, ‘lavender’ and ‘mauve’ into the category of ‘women’s language’, a register which in her view both derived from and reinforced women’s subordinate status in society:
Since women are not expected to make decisions on important matters, like what kind of job to hold, they are relegated the non-crucial decisions as a sop. Deciding whether to name a color ‘lavender’ or ‘mauve’ is one such sop.
These distinctions are regarded by men as trivial; and once they have been defined as the province of women, any man who does display an interest in them invites questions about his masculinity.
[A] woman may say ‘The wall is mauve’ with no one consequently forming any special impression of her as a result of the words alone; but if the man should say ‘the wall is mauve’, one might well conclude he was either imitating a woman sarcastically, or a homosexual, or an interior decorator.
So in addition to being something men ‘relegate’ to women because they consider it beneath their notice, colour-naming might be something men actively avoid, because they don’t want to be perceived as effeminate or gay.
As usual, though, what got into wider circulation was not Lakoff’s analysis of the cultural conditions that might produce gender differences in colour vocabulary, but just the ‘fun fact’ that women know more colour terms than men. The ‘if men got to name eyeshadow colors’ joke shows that nearly 50 years on, this is still part of our cultural common sense. Does research done since the 1970s bear it out, though? Many of these ‘fun facts’, after all, continue to be repeated long after they’ve been debunked by science. We’ve known for years that the ever-popular ‘Women talk more than men/use x times as many words per day as men’ is just straight-up BS. And other claims, including some of Lakoff’s, have turned out to be more complicated than they originally seemed. So, what’s the story about colour terms?
The short answer is that research done since the 1970s generally has supported the claim that women know more colour terms than men. There are also some finer-grained differences in the kinds of terms men and women produce when their colour vocabulary is tested. But what’s behind these differences is still a matter of debate.
By way of illustration, let’s take a closer look at one fairly recent piece of research in this tradition: an experimental study which was presented at a conference in 2012. It was conducted with 272 English-speaking subjects (159 women and 113 men), who were each asked to name a series of 20 colours selected randomly from a set of 600. The responses were ‘unconstrained’, i.e. participants could give each stimulus colour a name entirely of their own choosing. This procedure produced over 5000 responses, containing 1226 different colour terms. 29 per cent of these were ‘basic colour terms’ (red, blue, green, etc.), 23 per cent were single-word non-basic terms (mauve, scarlet), 42 per cent were two-word descriptions (a one-word term plus a modifier, like ‘bluish green’ or ‘pale yellow’) and 6 per cent contained three words or more (e.g. ‘pillar box red’).
As expected, there were differences between men and women–and there was more to this than the familiar finding that women produce more colour-names overall. Though the two sexes made similar use of basic colour terms, beyond the basics their choices diverged. Women chose more single-word terms like ‘mauve’, whereas men gravitated more to the two-word ‘bluish green’ type. The most frequently-used non-basic terms were also different for each sex. For instance, the top 20 female choices included ‘peach’ and ‘fuchsia’, neither of which featured in the men’s top 20; conversely, the male top 20 included ‘cyan’ and ‘magenta’, which did not make it onto the female list.
In their discussion of these findings the researchers remark that the colour men labelled ‘magenta’ is the same one for which women preferred the ‘fancy’ term ‘fuchsia’. I find this comment interesting, because to me it isn’t obvious that ‘fuchsia’ is any ‘fancier’ than ‘magenta’. On the contrary, I would argue that the two terms are not just equally fancy, they are fancy in exactly the same way. Both are derived from proper names: ‘fuchsia’, the name of a plant genus, honours the botanist Leonhard Fuchs, while ‘magenta’, the name given to an aniline dye invented in 1859, commemorates France’s victory at the battle of Magenta. The dye-colour was inspired by the fuchsia plant, and before its (French) inventor got carried away by patriotic pride he had intended to call it ‘fuchsine’.
We might suspect–in fact, I find it hard not to–that the researchers’ description of ‘fuchsia’, but not ‘magenta’, as ‘fancy’ reflects the pre-existing gender stereotype according to which women, but not men, use fancy colour terms. Similarly, they note that the part of the spectrum which women typically categorised as ‘turquoise’ was segmented by men into ‘turquoise, cyan and light blue’–but they make no comment on the ‘fanciness’ of ‘cyan’, nor on the fact that in this case it was men who made finer distinctions.
You may already have thought of an explanation for men’s more frequent use of ‘cyan’ and ‘magenta’. These terms have a tech connection: they’re two of the four ink colours used in colour printing. ‘Peach’ and ‘fuchsia’, by contrast, are terms you’d be more likely to encounter if you were shopping for lingerie. Such observations might suggest that women’s more extensive colour vocabulary is not a product of nature but an artefact of culture. Men don’t shy away from non-basic colour terms if they belong to a male domain; it’s just that there tends to be more use of elaborate terminology in domains which are coded as female.
Until recently, this cultural explanation was favoured not only by feminists, but also by most scientists. But in sex-difference science generally there’s been a resurgence of interest in biological explanations, and it’s been suggested that women’s more extensive colour vocabulary might reflect their naturally superior ability to discriminate colours visually. This isn’t an easy argument to settle: there’s an obvious chicken and egg problem. For instance, referring to a 1990 study of mail order catalogues which found ‘more variation in the terms describing women’s clothing than men’s’, the authors of the 2012 study suggest that the catalogue producers were ‘taking advantage’ of women’s greater facility for discriminating and naming colours. Yet it could equally be argued that women develop this facility precisely because the products they consume come in a wider range of colours and are described using a wider range of terms.
One way to investigate this further might be to consider variables other than sex/gender. Men and women, after all, are diverse rather than homogeneous, in ways that might be expected to make a difference to their use of colour-terms–especially if this is primarily a cultural thing. Pursuing that line of thought, I discovered a study published in 2007 which found a difference between older and younger men: while the older men, as usual, produced a limited range of non-basic terms, the younger men were far more similar to women. There is more than one possible explanation for this finding, but the most plausible one, arguably, is cultural change, both in gendered patterns of consumption and in ideas about masculinity. I found some indirect support for this in current clothing catalogues. When I looked at a (small) sample it was clear that the colour-terms used in the menswear and womenswear sections were less sharply differentiated than they reportedly had been in 1990. Today’s fashion retailers seem confident that their male customers, like their female ones, will buy shirts in ‘sage’, ‘forest’ or ‘acqua’ rather than just ‘green’.
But another variable that should probably be in the mix here is social class. The catalogues I looked at (which had come unsolicited through my letterbox and ended up in my recycling bin) were clearly addressed to a certain segment of the market, and that was reflected in their language as well as their prices. Words are among the semiotic resources companies use to construct an image that will appeal to, or flatter, their target customer; elaborate or unusual colour terms often seem to be associated with more ‘aspirational’ brands.
Consider, for instance, paint shade-cards. They’re a vast repository of ridiculous colour-names, but if you compare, say, the upscale Farrow & Ball range to B&Q’s more basic house-brand, you will find they are ridiculous in different ways. F&B sells shades called things like ‘Railings’; B&Q offers shades like ‘Pumpkin Pie’. Both might be described as whimsical, but one is–to quote a painter and decorator I once discussed this with–‘poncier’ than the other.
Of course, no one participating in a colour-naming experiment would be likely to produce something as obscure as ‘Railings’. But participants’ choices might still be influenced by the ‘ponciness’ factor. And this wouldn’t necessarily be just a direct reflection of their own class position. As I explained in an earlier post about swearing, there’s quite a strong tendency for middle- or upper-class linguistic norms to be symbolically associated with femininity while working-class norms are associated with masculinity. We might therefore expect men, including middle-class ones, to be more concerned than women about avoiding terms they consider ‘poncy’. This avoidance is central to the humour of the joke eyeshadow palette: in a context where poncy words are standard, the author of the joke has substituted aggressively plain, down-to-earth or crude alternatives.
The maleness that’s both parodied and celebrated in this joke is defined not only in opposition to femininity, but also by contrast with certain kinds of masculinity (for instance, anything too gay or too educated). Colour terms, it turns out, are a great resource for this kind of social symbolism. But precisely for that reason I think it’s hard to know what we can safely conclude from studies which claim to show that women know more colour terms. I’m not disputing the (very consistent) finding that women generally produce more terms; but is that simply because men’s vocabulary is smaller? If men write ‘pinkish-purple’ rather than ‘mauve’, does that mean ‘mauve’ isn’t in their repertoire, or does it mean they’re reluctant to present themselves as the kind of man who uses words like ‘mauve’?
There’s also a more fundamental question, one I always seem to end up asking when I post about any kind of sex-difference science: why does any of this matter in the first place? So what if you say magenta and I say fuchsia? Let’s call the whole thing off!
But while I don’t care about the question itself, I do care about what’s behind it. When a (real or alleged) sex-difference becomes the object of intense scientific and/or popular fascination, that often has less to do with its real-world importance than with the symbolic meaning we project onto it. We seize on certain generalisations because they fit with our beliefs about what men and women are or should be like. Sometimes the generalisations are completely false; sometimes, as in this case, they’re more robust; but either way, they contribute to the patriarchal project of keeping men and women in their prescribed, different-and-not-equal, places. And even when it’s funny, that’s no joke.