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The Ornithologist Who Created Our Color Names

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Over at the Smithsonian, Daniel Lewis has a fascinating article up about 19th Century color dictionaries, which were use by scientists to standardize descriptions.

Color, Lewis notes, is very important for distinguishing species and subspecies of plants and animals. For 19th century naturalists trying to describe what they were seeing to each other, there were two problems that color dictionaries solved: 1) the eternal question of whether the green one person sees is the same as the green someone else sees and 2) trying to use words to describe a color accurately in a time before cameras were everywhere.

The dictionaries were made of swatches with names (translated into several languages), numbers, and idiosyncratic descriptions like "the color of the blood of a freshly killed rabbit."


Lewis focuses on Robert Ridgway, whose Color Standards and Color Nomenclature eventually became the Pantone color chart. Writes Lewis:

But Ridgway's work stood out. Shy, retiring, and nerdy in the extreme, he was an astonishingly talented identifier and user of colors. This gift was key in a field where distinguishing among subspecies of birds with slight color variations was essential to understanding the mechanisms of evolution, speciation, and other scientific aspects of the natural world. Ridgway wrote a short color dictionary in 1886, just as he finished work on a groundbreaking set of rules and guidelines for naming birds. He worked quietly on his color project for decades, until 1912, when he self-published a work with 1,115 named colors: Color Standards and Color Nomenclature.

The book is filled with color swatches with names like "Dragons-blood Red," which makes me think of blood dripping from a sword; or "Light Paris Green," which seems like a holiday; or "Light Squill Blue," which somehow sounds like a cross between "squash" and "quill" and "thrill," though a squill is in fact a coastal Mediterranean plant.

Like many color dictionary authors, Ridgway buried within the names shout-outs to famous (or obscure) color theorists and painters. He was influenced by the work of Ogden Rood, a physicist and artist who worked up a new theory of contrasting colors, included him in four color names: Rood's Blue, Rood's Violet, Rood's Brown, and Rood's Lavender. Board game maven Milton Bradley, who also sold apparatuses for mixing colors, appears in Bradley's Blue and Bradley's Violet. Chapman's Blue is certainly a nod to his friend Frank Chapman, who was the first to group birds by color, rather than shape, in his 20th century field guides.


Read the whole thing at Smithsonian Magazine.


Top image: Selection from Plate I from Robert Ridgway's Color Standards and Color Nomenclature