Friday, August 29, 2008

The meaning of colors

After yesterday's heat (84 degrees inside my house, since I have no air conditioning) I was tempted to write an entry about how hot weather can cause the melting of all thought in a susceptible brain. Fortunately, I got a different idea this afternoon when passing the dollar shop with my kids. There was a pair of rather ridiculous-looking bear balloons in the window, one pink, one blue, reading "It's a girl!" and "It's a boy!" respectively. When I explained that pink is generally considered a baby girl color, and blue a baby boy color, both of them asked me, "Why?"

Oh, boy.

At the time I said there was no real reason, but that was just the way people usually felt about pink and blue; since then I've looked it up online. The most interesting of the answers I found can be found here:
http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=238733

This answer seems well researched and confirms my general impression that fashion is pretty much arbitrary, despite its obvious strength. To give you a sense of what you'll find if you go there, "digsalot" explains that pink used to be considered a boy's color (1914 and earlier) because it was considered to be a watered-down version of red, which was also considered masculine. Blue, by contrast, was associated with the Virgin Mary, and thus considered feminine. The current bias didn't solidify until the 1950's.

Culture has a lot to do with the emotions and situations associated with colors. Take the association between red and masculinity, explained in the above discussion - it applies to America, and to many Western countries, but not to Japan. In Japan, red is a feminine color. Traditional kimono for young girls often are red, or contain the color red. When people are divided into a boys' team and a girls' team for competition, they are generally labeled the "red" team and the "white" team - the red being the girls, and the white the boys.

White is the color of mourning in China, while black has been used for mourning in America, and in England since at least Shakespeare's time (in Twelfth Night, the lady Olivia wears all black). When I Googled mourning colors, I found the following quote at the url http://chestofbooks.com/reference/Dictionary-of-Dry-Goods/Mourning.html :

"In China, white is invariably the color adopted for mourning; in Turkey, blue or violet; in Egypt, yellow; in Ethiopia, brown. Persia adopts pale brown; Burmah, yellow; Tartary, deep blue; Asia-Minor, sky blue. The Spartan and Roman ladies mourned in white; and the same color prevailed formerly in Castile on the death of their princes. Kings and cardinals mourn in purple. Each people have their reasons for the particular color which they affect: white is supposed to denote purity; yellow that death is the end of human hopes - in reference to leaves when they fall, and flowers when they fade, which become yellow. Brown denotes the earth, whither the dead return. Black, the privations of life, as being the the privation of light. Blue expresses the happiness which it is hoped the deceased will enjoy in the land beyond the skies; and purple or violet, sorrow on the one side and hope on the other, as being a mixture of black and blue. "

I can't help but be impressed by the variety of symbolisms associated with colors. Color symbolism is a great cultural dimension to add to a science fiction or fantasy world. In my Varin world, many castes are associated with colors (servants with black, soldiers with red, artisans with light gray). C.J. Cherryh's The Faded Sun trilogy used color symbolism for the castes of the mri people (black for the Kel warriors, gold for the scholarly Sen, and blue for the Kath women and children). A more unusual appearance of color is the pink mortar used to cement keystones in LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness - it turns out to have been mixed with blood instead of water. Cool and creepy to me!

Someday I hope I can have a more in-depth discussion of culture and colors with my kids - but for now I'm happy to have had the chance to share my thoughts here.

Upcoming posts at TTYU: education, nicknames