Seeing Cerise: Defining Colors in Webster’s Third

When you spend all your time in a book, you think you know it. All the editors at Merriam-Webster know the Third, but now that we’re undertaking a revision of the beast, we’re ears-deep in it, drowning in stuffy single-statement definitions. Each of us breathes a bit shallower when we start futzing around with Philip Babcock Gove’s defining style, waiting for his ghost to dock our pay or perhaps cuff us upside the head as we sully his great work. Add to this the fact that, it’s true, familiarity does breed contempt. At least once a batch, I look at a perfectly constructed definition, accurate and dispassionate to the point of inhumanity, and wish I could add a wildly inappropriate example sentence just to liven things up a bit, like <Doctors suggest you eat kale until your pee is neon green with excess micronutrients.> So you may understand why, while I was slogging my way through a B batch, I was delighted to run across this:

begonia n3 : a deep pink that is bluer, lighter, and stronger than average coral (sense 3b), bluer than fiesta, and bluer and stronger than sweet william — called also gaiety

I lit up like a used car lot. As I was at my desk on the editorial floor, and my cubemate was in a foul mood owing to an e-mail he had received about the thesaurus entry for “love,” I very carefully laid my palms flat on my desk to keep myself from clapping and merely mouthed the words “average coral (sense 3b)” four times. It was, as far as I could tell, an accurate definition–but it was so evocative and full of personality that I began to wonder if it had been slipped in after Gove shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the editorial floor invisible.

So began a deep-pink goose chase through the Third, as I looked for “fiesta,” then “sweet william,” and then “average coral.” I eventually ended up at “coral,” where sense 3c yielded up the fresh wonder, “a strong pink that is yellower and stronger than carnation rose, bluer, stronger, and slightly lighter than rose d’Althaea, and lighter, stronger, and slightly yellower than sea pink.” Carnation rose was clearly the color of the pinkish flower on the tin of Carnation Evaporated Milk, and Rose d’Althaea was clearly Scarlett O’Hara’s flouncy cousin, but it was the last color that captivated me. “Sea pink,” I murmured, and incurred the harumphing wrath of my neighbor. As he stalked off to find a quieter corner, I wanted to stand up and shout, “I grew up 1500 miles from an ocean! I didn’t know the sea was pink!”

The Third’s color definitions became my break from defining or proofreading. After staring into the middle distance for a few seconds, I’d think of a color and look it up in the Third, invariably ending my chromatic excursions with a fool grin on my face. Vermillion: “a variable color averaging a vivid reddish orange that is redder, darker, and slightly stronger than chrome orange, redder and darker than golden poppy, and redder and lighter than international orange.” Lapis lazuli blue: “a moderate blue that is redder and duller than average copen and redder and deeper than azurite blue, dresden blue, or pompadour.” Cadet: “a grayish blue that is redder and paler than electric, redder and duller than copenhagen, and less strong and very slightly redder than Gobelin.” Electric! Copen! International orange! Prior to “begonia,” the Third was a middle-aged management man with a Brylcreemed combover, in well-pressed shirt-sleeves and pants that were a bit too tight at the waist, full of busy self-importance. Now, he was the same middle-aged manager, but unbeknownst to the rest of the office, he danced flamenco on the weekends.

How did this all this flamenco dancing slip past Gove, the authoritarian curmudgeon who oversaw the creation of Third?

Of course, nothing of this magnitude would have slipped past Gove. The color definitions in the Third were very carefully engineered in accordance with Gove’s vision of a dictionary that was not only completely objective and precise, but was also the most scientifically minded dictionary of its day. One only need look as far as the masthead of the Third to see the lengths that Gove went to: 202 lengths, all listed under the tidy heading, “Outside Consultants.” These consultants were pedigreed and heavily degreed experts in their respective fields, and their job was to provide direction for specialty areas that in-house editors may not have had much experience with, such as the Mayan calendar, traffic regulations, and (gasp) coffee. Gove took his color definitions seriously. There are seven consultants listed for color; there are only four total consultants for mathematics and physics.

The color definitions in the Third are a meeting of old and new. The chief color consultant for the Third was Isaac H. Godlove, a man whose name means nothing to you unless you study the history of color theory. Since fewer people study the history of color theory than do lexicography full-time, I will tell you that Godlove was the chairman of the Committee of Measurement and Specification of the Inter-Society Color Council, a member of the Colorimetry Committee of the Optical Society, director of the Munsell Research Laboratory (which gave rise to the Munsell Color Company, a company that was evidently formed specifically to standardize colors), and a guy whose business cards must have been double-thick fold-out jobbies. He was also the color consultant for Webster’s Second New International Dictionary.

For Webster’s Second, Dr. Godlove developed a system of defining colors by hue, saturation, and brilliance. “Cherry,” for instance, is defined in the Second as “A bright-red color; specif., a color, yellowish-red in hue, of very high saturation and medium brilliance.” If this doesn’t call to mind an exact color–and I don’t see how it could unless you were a colorimetrist–the Second helpfully requests that you also see the entry for “color.” The entry for “color” is three columns long in the Second, begins with the label “Psychophysics,” and includes a lively discussion on the different ways to measure hue, the nature of light waves, and the neurochemical impulses that, when combined, potentially yield the sensation we refer to as “color.” There are graphs and two color plates. It is serious business.

Godlove’s work as a colorist was brilliant, and Gove likely knew it. (He may have been a workaholic perfectionist who pioneered the Rule of Silence, but he wasn’t a moron.) To duplicate this sort of defining system would have cost time and money, and Gove hated anything that breathed inefficiency. It seemed best, then, to use the framework that Godlove had set up for the Second. There was one snag: these standardized definitions that appealed to an objective standard set up by The Standards People couldn’t stand on their own. Every definition followed the same pattern: “a color, [color name] in hue, of [high/medium/low] saturation, and [high/medium/low] brilliance Cf. COLOR.” But apart from one reference to an indistinct and very subjectively observed color, like “yellowish yellow-green” at “holly green,” there was nothing in the definition to orient the casual reader apart from the color plates given at the colossal brain-twisting entry at “color.” And, of course, there weren’t color swatches for every color defined in the Second. “Holly green” is only the yellowish yellow-green that is of low saturation and medium brilliance, whatever that may be.

Gove called Godlove back in to work on the color definitions of the Third, and to entice him, he gave him a team of color theorists to boss around. As astonishing as it sounds, color names had been increasingly standardized since the 1930s, and their use had even been analyzed in mass-marketing–very sciencey!–and these guidelines and findings were to be incorporated into the Third. Who better to do this than the man who helped pioneer color standards?

The working files for the Third begin with the Black Books: our editorial style guide as written by Gove and adhered to by editors under pain of death (or a stern note from Gove, which was essentially the same thing). The Black Books are 600-plus pages of single-spaced directions filed in loose-leaf black binders, and they used to sit on the top of one of our long banks of citation drawers, lending that little warren an air of regimented malevolence. You only had to look at them to feel the ghost of Gove march past you, wondering why you were gawking instead of busting your hump on the E file.

The Black Books have much to say on many things, but less to say on the color definitions than you’d think. Perhaps the very first sentence is all that Gove needed to say: “Godlove’s psychophysical defs of color names and their references had better be regarded as sacrosanct.” Full stop. General editors were absolutely not to be mucking about in the color definitions.

Gove let Godlove use the latest scientific techniques in discussing color: there are color plates in the Third, as there were in the Second, and there is an entire page devoted to explaining the color charts and descriptive color names in the Third, as well as a five-page long dye chart tucked neatly in between the first and second homographs of the word “dye.” (The explanation of color charts in the Third abandons the discussion of psychophysicality and favors equations. Very Cold War.) But there are two big differences between the Second and the Third.

The first is that the color definitions in the Third were to be relational–that is, every color could be defined as being more or less of something than another color entered in the Third. Formulaic statements regarding the hue, saturation, and brilliance (now called “lightness”) of a color were insufficient. The other revolution is that the analyzed work of “color specialists from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward,” as Gove put it, would be used in defining the color names in the Third. In other words, users of the Third were not just going to get the names of colors that were considered scientific standards: they were going to get the names of this fall’s fashions in the Monkey Ward’s catalog. Gove sums up: “The range therefore is in the direction of the layman.”

And what a kaleidoscope the layman got. You could spend an hour alone getting lost in “cerise” (“a moderate red that is slightly darker than claret (sense 3a), slightly lighter than Harvard crimson (sense 1), very slightly bluer and duller than average strawberry (sense 2a), and bluer and very slightly lighter than Turkey red”). No doubt people did. That may explain why we don’t define colors this way anymore.

The Third, with its zeal for modernism and science and objectivity, sometimes lost sight of the forest for all the xylem and phloem. As specific as the definition of “cerise” is–and as smart as I am–all I get out of that is that “cerise” means “moderate red” and that there is more than one sense of “Harvard crimson,” which must really piss Yale off.

Let’s also take into account that if we’re doing our job–defining from citations–then colors are frustratingly, pound-on-the-desk difficult to pin down. Text-only citations give you absolutely nothing to go on: “Misses large, available in Cranberry, Olive, Cinnamon, Ochre, Cadet, Holly, Taupe.” These might as well be the names of the Seven Dwarves for all the information they give me.

Clearly, then, you need a color swatch. That should make matters easier. Here’s a swatch for you:

That is a quick Google image search for “taupe color swatch.” Some of those colors are distinctly not what I think of when I think of “taupe.” And that’s part of the problem.

Even taking printing or monitor differences into account, the fact is that the use of color names is standard, but the things those names represent are not. One man’s “taupe” is another’s “beige” is another’s “bone” is another’s “eggshell” is another’s “sand” is another’s “tan.” By the time I came around, we had given up on Godlove’s precision and instead gave the very first part of the Third’s definition for most colors: “cerise” is, in the Collegiate, “a moderate red.” That’s not terribly specific, but it does allow for variations in reproduction, marketing uses, and psychophysical observations of a wide variety of colors that are called “cerise.” (Please do not tell me you are red-green colorblind.)

The only place where a little poetry comes back into the dictionary is at the definitions for the basic Roy G. Biv: the colors of the visible spectrum. In defining those colors, we hearken back to generations of lexicographers before us (even back to Grumpy Uncle Noah) and play a bit of word association: when I say “blue,” the first thing you picture is…what?

For some poor schmuck, stuck indoors at some point in the 1850s revising Webster’s 1847 dictionary, blue was the clear sky. Collegiate definers have determined that red is blood or rubies. Green is growing grass, or maybe it’s emeralds, and yellow is ripe lemons or sunflowers. Whimsy does still take a backseat to practical matters, though. “Orange” presented problems–after all, what’s orange? Oranges, of all things, and you can’t say, with a straight face, that the color orange is the color of oranges without deserving a good smack.

You’d think that this word association would work well enough, but there’s always tweaking that needs to be done. Cerise, for instance, is the color of…what, exactly? I’ll tell you what: it is the color of a suit set my grandmother owned and only wore to Christmas brunches at the Aviation Club, where she would sit me down in my velveteen layer-cake of a holiday dress and demand my silence while she and Mrs. Tannendorf would drink mimosas and bloody Marys and pine for the good old days of Eisenhower. That suit is, I am telling you, exactly cerise, but that doesn’t do you much good, does it? You also can’t make sweeping assumptions about your reader. Sunflowers are yellow–but chances are good that if someone learning English knows what the word “sunflower” means, they probably know what “yellow” means as well. We had to get a bit more creative when we wrote our own ESL dictionary (here the ghost of Gove frowns): “orange” in our Learner’s Dictionary is not a color between red and yellow, as it is in the Collegiate. It is the color of fire or carrots.

It’s not that these picturesque color definitions are more correct or incorrect than the definitions before them. But defining colors is a bit like defining the word “love”: likely to make you sound like a nitwit in the real world.  You could argue that a straight-up scientific approach is best; that no comparisons should be made at all in color definitions. But after the labyrinth of the Third’s “cerise,” the simplest route is beguiling: Yellow is the color of the sun or ripe lemons. Green is grass; red is blood, brown is coffee or chocolate. And blue is still the color of the clear sky.

(Please do not tell me you are blue-green colorblind.)



Filed under famous lexicographers, general, history, lexicography, making word sausage

36 responses to “Seeing Cerise: Defining Colors in Webster’s Third

  1. Jamie

    The creator of the xkcd webcomic was inspired (by another comic) to do some research into how people name and perceive colours. The results are both interesting and amusing:
    [contains strong language]

  2. Kate

    Beautifully said.

  3. I remember reading a book from the UConn library about 25 years ago, hundreds of pages on color science without a single color plate…

  4. I wish I had something to say besides “Beautiful post, Kory.” Seriously, though, beautiful post, Kory.

  5. B

    There should be a pampket with all those colour definitions and then a giant colour scheme that showed all the colours in relation to eachother.

  6. With every entry, you make me fall in love with language all over again.

  7. This made me think of Patricia Shih’s song for children, “The Color Song”:

    Why do they call you yellow man?
    You’re not yellow at all
    Yellow is the color of the morning sun and
    dandelions and chicken soup and
    legal pads and
    Fearful minds
    Yes, yellow is the color of all these things
    But people are not the same
    You remind me of the golden rule
    whenever I say your name, O
    (Bum bum-bum bum bum…4x)

    Why do they call you red man?
    You’re not red at all
    Red is the color of the climbing rose and
    traffic lights and tomatoes and
    chicken pox and bloody nose and
    Angry words
    Yes, red is the color of all these things
    But people are not the same
    I can see the rosy future
    whenever I say your name, O

    Why do they call you black man?
    You’re not black at all
    Black is the color of the light not there and
    Daddy’s shoes and Mommy’s hair and
    bowling balls and question marks and
    Blind despair
    Yes, black is the color of all these things
    But people are not the same
    I have had the deepest thoughts
    whenever I say your name, O

    Why do they call you white man?
    You’re not white at all
    White is the color of the petticoats and
    Elmer’s glue and billy goats and
    falling snow and
    Burning shame
    Yes, white is the color of all these things
    But people are not the same
    I can see the clearest light
    whenever I say your name, O

    So what do you call your fellow man
    if color doesn’t matter at all?
    Anything, so long as in the
    name of love and forgiveness and
    hopefulness and lasting peace and
    dignity and
    For many are the colors of all these things
    But people are all the same
    We’re each other’s brothers and sisters
    and we all have one name, O

  8. I need to come back and read this properly when I have time to digest it, but for now, I want to say how much it reminds me of the following scene from “Thief of Time” by Terry Pratchett. I am willing to bet that I am not the only person to read this blog post and be reminded of the same scene.

    ‘But we are running out of colours,’ said Mr Violet, intervening.
    ‘That cannot be the case,’ said Mr White. ‘There is an infinite number of colours.’
    ‘But there are not that many names,’ said Miss Taupe.
    ‘That is not possible. A colour must have a name.’
    ‘We can find only one hundred and three names for green before the colour becomes noticeably either blue or yellow,’ said Miss Crimson.
    ‘But the shades are endless!’
    ‘Nevertheless, the names are not.’
    ‘This is a problem that must be solved. Add it to the list, Miss Brown. We must name every possible shade.’

  9. Pingback: » What does “orange” mean?

  10. Marc Leavitt

    Spot on, Kory:
    Your clarity brightened my day,
    In a primary, colorful way

  11. Lowengard

    What fun! Thanks. And, lucky for you, you didn’t ever /start/ to approach the cultural issues in nomenclature. ;^)

  12. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Mars, Olympics, and more | Wordnik

  13. Pingback: Jugglinks: Eggplant Taupe Edition » The Juggler

    • korystamper

      And fire can be blue, depending on what fuel it’s burning. But most folks think “carrot = orange.”

      (I have nothing against purple carrots: they are wacky and delicious, two of my favorite things.)

      • Reminds me of my father MCing dances with what were called “spot prizes” to encourage participation. One of his favourites was “prize for the first man on the dance-floor to bring me a rose-coloured handkerchief.” White, of course was quite acceptable.

  14. Pingback: Color definitions = found poetry : Leonardo Boiko’s background diary

  15. The human eye is so easily fooled anyway when it comes to colors; their definitions ought to be equally wobbly, I suppose. I’m reminded of Josef Albers’ works with adjacent colors and optical illusions. (There’s a neat video here explaining it: — don’t miss the last 2 minutes.)

    I’ve never heard of the color “sweet william” before, and now I wonder whether there is a “sour william,” and if it’s the complement of “sweet william.” Maybe, if we forced language to be logical.

  16. Pingback: Link love: language (45) « Sentence first

  17. Sky

    Have you seen the 2010 color survey done by Randall Munroe (of xkcd)? As far as I know, it’s the largest survey that’s ever been done to determine what labels people associate with what colors; it seems there were nearly a hundred and fifty thousand participants. A summary of his results can be found at and his entertaining blog post on those results is at

    Being as this is my first comment here, I feel the need to remark that I find your blog to be unfailingly captivating. To me, a new post of yours rates as one of the most exciting occurrences on the internet.

  18. Pingback: Seeing Cerise: Defining Colors in Webster’s Third | LinguaGreca |

  19. An off topic question: When is Webster’s 4th projected to be released? I just stumbled upon your blog via a link on the Paris Review site. Maybe you’ve addressed this before – sorry for the duplication if that’s the case.

    • korystamper

      Well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you: long-standing company policy prohibits me from discussing release dates until we’ve announced the release of a book to our distributors and direct buyers. But I think I can safely tell you that I am diligently working on it, along with all my colleagues, and that there is a for-reals deadline for the book that is not 30 years from now.

      Stay tuned, as always, to this exciting channel!

  20. korystamper

    Ah, sorry everyone whose links to Randall Munroe’s xkcd color survey got them shunted straight into the Spam folder. :-/ I think we’re all better now.

  21. At the risk of intruding upon territory that you inhabit with complete authority, I am nevertheless tempted to share with you my struggle several years ago to come up with a viable working definition of pavlova, a., an exciting new season’s color that Melbourne department stores attempted to popularize in the years following the eponymous ballerina’s sensational appearances throughout Australasia in 1926, but obviously without any long-term success. See and and and No doubt all this would naturally disqualify pavlova, a. from inclusion in Merriam-Webster , though presumably there is room for the far more successful pavlova, n., New Zealand’s premier cultural export:

  22. Pingback: It’s Not Easy Seeing Green | News-ON Boston

  23. This post is just great! It’s academic but fun all at once.

    Going off on a tangent, could you help me out on this other sensation-related word hunt? What words could best describe the taste of avocadoes? It seems that with the 10k+ words I know, I can’t find the ones that seems fit for that fruit!

  24. Very good piece, Kory. Colours are very subjective, and commercial use, I think, has muddied dictionary-worthy definitions. Choosing colours for a leather sofa, I would not have guessed “sea coral” was a pale green.

    I’m fascinated by colour verbs; why blue (you do it to steel or a musical note); yellow (paper does); but redden? Blacken, but black when referring to eyes or veto on strike-breaking goods (British trade-unionism).

    And why is there, as far as I know, no verb meaning “to be or become orange”? Not one derived from the colour-name, anyway.

  25. Hank G.

    Of course in this modern computer age you could just say:

    sky blue: see PANTONE 15-4020 TC

  26. Pingback: How do you use words to define colours? | All Things Linguistic

  27. Jack Deskins

    I’ve just discovered your blog and I am enjoying every entry. After reading this entry, I wondered if you had heard the episode of Radiolab where they discuss the color blue and it’s history in languages. Completely fascinating stuff:

  28. A sea pink is a type of flower. As is a sweet william (ancestor of the carnation)

  29. Pingback: Weekly favorites (Aug 13-19) | Lingua Greca Translations

  30. Pingback: Know Your Oranges, Color Definitions Game | Munsell Color System; Color Matching from Munsell Color Company

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s