19 Colors You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

iStock.com/terrababy
iStock.com/terrababy

Most of the basic English names for colors—like red, yellow, and green—are among the oldest recorded words in our language and can be traced right back to the Old English period. One exception to that rule is the color orange, which didn’t begin to appear in the language until after oranges (the fruit) were imported into Britain from Europe in the Middle Ages. Before then, what we would describe as orange today had just to be called either red or yellow (or, if you wanted to be really specific, red-yellow). But the English language being as enormous as it is, a predictably vast vocabulary of words have been invented, borrowed, and accumulated over the centuries to describe almost every color and shade imaginable—from the precise color of a bear’s ears to the murky green of goose droppings. 19 brilliantly named examples of colors you’ve probably never heard of are listed here.

1. Australien

Pinnacles desert in Australia
iStock.com/vanbeets

The 1897 guide House Decoration includes, in a chapter dedicated to mixing oil paints, “a list of new colors for ladies’ dresses,” among which is listed australien. Inspired by the rusty color of the rocks and deserts of the Australian outback, the name australien was used by dressmakers and fashion houses in late Victorian England for a deep orange color.

2. Banan

A bunch of bananas on a wooden background
iStock.com/sergio_kumer

The color of a ripe banana? That’s banan.

3. Bastard-Amber

A square of light amber
Rebecca O'Connell

Bastard-amber is the name of an amber-colored spotlight used in theaters to produce a warm peach or pink glow on stage. It’s often used to recreate sunlight, or to give the illusion of dawn or dusk.

4. Drake’s-Neck

Two mallard ducks
iStock.com/taviphoto

The drake in question here is the male mallard, a species of duck found across North America, Europe, and Asia. The males have an iridescent bottle-green head and neck, which gave its name to a rich green-colored dye called drake’s-neck in the early 18th century.

5. Drunk-Tank Pink

A square of pink
Rebecca O'Connell

Drunk-tank is the name of a bright shade of pink that has been the subject of a number of studies on the effects of colors on human temperament. This particular color—also known as Baker-Miller pink, after the two U.S. Navy officers who invented it—has been demonstrated in numerous experiments to have a calming influence, and so is often used in prisons and police holding cells to help keep inmates relaxed and to discourage unruly behavior.

6. Falu

Falun is a small city in Sweden renowned for its copper mining industry. Since the mid-16th century (at least), many of the wooden homes, barns, outhouses and other buildings in and around Falun have been traditionally painted a deep rust-red color known as falu that is manufactured from the iron-rich waste materials left over from the mines.

7. Flame-of-Burnt-Brandy

A burning cocktail
iStock.com/Santiaga

As the dyeing industry developed in the 19th century and was able to produce more and more colors, dressmakers and designers were left to concoct a whole range of weird and wonderful names for the new hues at their disposal. Flame-of-burnt-brandy was just one of them, described in 1821 by one ladies’ magazine as a mixture of “lavender grey, pale yellow, and dark lilac.” Other equally evocative names dating from the same period include dragon’s blood (a deep purplish-red), d’oreille d’ours (a rich brown, literally “bear’s ears”), elephant’s breath (steel gray) and flamme de Vesuve ("the flame of Vesuvius," or the color of lava).

8. Gingerline

A bunch of kumquats
iStock.com/HarmKruyshaar

Not just another word for anything ginger-colored, gingerline is often said to be a reddish-violet or reddish-brown color. However, by other accounts it describes a rich orange-yellow. According to one description, it refers very precisely to the color of ripe kumquats.

9. Incarnadine

A square of of dark red-brown
Rebecca O'Connell

Incarnadine is an etymological cousin of the adjective "incarnate," meaning “having bodily form.” In this sense it literally means flesh-colored, but Shakespeare used it to mean blood-red in Macbeth, and nowadays it’s usually used to refer to a rich crimson or dark-red color.

10. Labrador

A square of light gray-blue
Rebecca O'Connell

Not, as you might think, the color of a Labrador dog, labrador is actually a shade of blue that takes its name from the mineral labradorite, a blueish form of feldspar.

11. Lusty Gallant

A pale peach-pink rose
iStock.com/Tippapatt

Lusty gallant was originally the name of a dance popular in Tudor England, but somehow, in the late 1500s its name became attached to a pale shade of red, similar to coral pink. Quite how or why this happened is unclear, but according to the Elizabethan writer William Harrison, dressmakers at the time had a habit of giving increasingly bizarre names to the colors of their clothes in the hope of making them more appealing to buyers. In his Description of England, written in 1577, Harrison lists the names of several “hues devised to please fantastical heads,” including “gooseturd green, pease-porridge tawny, popinjay blue, lusty-gallant, [and] the-devil-in-the-head.”

12. Nattier

Jean-Marc Nattier, The Comtesse de Tillières
Jean-Marc Nattier, The Comtesse de Tillières
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766) was a French Rococo artist known for a series of portraits of women from the court of Louis XV of France depicted as characters from Greek mythology. Despite achieving enormous popularity during his lifetime—his contemporaries thought his work so exquisite that they even accused him of painting with makeup rather than paint—Nattier is relatively little-known today, but he lives on in the name of a deep shade of slate-blue that he used in a number of his paintings, most notably a portrait of The Comtesse de Tillières (1750), nicknamed “The Lady in Blue.”

13. Pervenche

A square of blue
Rebecca O'Connell

Pervenche is the French word for periwinkle, which came to be used in English in the 19th century as another name for the rich purplish-blue color of periwinkle flowers.

14. Puke

Brown woolen socks
iStock.com/Coprid

Fortunately, when William Shakespeare wrote of a "puke-stocking" in Henry IV: Part 1, he didn’t mean anything having to do with vomit. In 16th century England, puke was the name of a high quality woolen fabric, which was typically a dull, dark brown color.

15. Sang-De-Boeuf

A square of oxblood
Rebecca O'Connell

Unsurprisingly sang-de-boeuf, or “oxblood,” is the name of a rich shade of red that was originally a blood-colored pottery glaze made with copper. Although the name sang-de-boeuf dates back no further than the late 19th century, the technique used to manufacture oxblood glazes was first developed possibly as far back as the 1200s in China.

16. Sinoper

A square of deep orange
Rebecca O'Connell

Popular among Renaissance artists, sinoper or sinople was an artist’s pigment containing particles of hematite, an iron-rich mineral that gave it a rich rust-red color. Its name comes from the town of Sinop on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, from where it was first imported into Europe in the late Middle Ages.

17. Verditer

A square of bright mint green
Rebecca O'Connell

Verditer is both an old fashioned name for verdigris, the green rust-like discoloration of copper and brass, and the name of a blue-green pigment dating from the 1500s. Its name, which is derived from the French verte-de-terre, or "green of the earth," is today used in the name of a bright turquoise songbird, the verditer flycatcher, which is native to the Himalayas.

18. Watchet


Watchet is a very pale blue color, similar to sky blue. According to folk etymology, the color takes its name from the town of Watchet on the coast of Somerset in southwest England, the cliffs around which appear pale blue because they are rich in alabaster. As neat a story as this is, however, it’s much more likely that watchet is really derived from waiss, an old Belgian-French word for royal blue.

19. Zaffre

A square of deep cobalt blue
Rebecca O'Connell

Zaffre is the name of an ancient blue pigment originally produced by burning ores of cobalt in a furnace. Its name was borrowed into English from the Italian zaffera in the 17th century, and is ultimately descended from the Latin word for “sapphire.”

A version of this story first ran in 2014.

13 Alternative Lyrics From “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)
craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)

First published in English in 1780, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (actually the 12 days after Christmas) is thought to have originated in France as a children’s forfeit game with ever more elaborate gifts added to the collection, verse by verse, as a test of memory. Whatever its origins may be, however, as the carol grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, numerous versions and variations of its lyrics began to emerge.

Some of these differences still survive in different versions sung today: The traditional “five gold rings” are sometimes described as “five golden rings,” and while some performances describe what “my true love gave to me,” others say the gifts were “sent to me.” But these kinds of subtle differences are nothing compared to some of the gifts in the song’s earlier incarnations.

1. "A Very Pretty Peacock"

One early version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was recorded by the Scottish poet and artist William Scott Bell in 1892. Although most of Bell’s lyrics are identical to what we sing today, in his version each verse concludes not with “a partridge in a pear tree,” but with a considerably more ostentatious “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.”

2. "Four Canary Birds"

In the original 1780 version, the “four calling birds” are instead described as “four colly birds,” colly—literally “coaly”—being an old English dialect word meaning “soot-black.” By the mid-19th century, however, the word colly had largely fallen out of use, leaving several Victorian editions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to come up with their own replacements. “Colour’d birds” and even “curley birds” were used in some editions, while an exotic “four canary birds” were added to the lyrics of one version. The now standard “four calling birds” first appeared in the early 1900s.

3. And 4. "Eight Hares A-Running" and "Eleven Badgers Baiting"

In 1869, an article appeared in an English magazine called The Cliftonian that described a traditional Christmas in rural Gloucestershire, southwest England. The author of the piece wrote that he had heard some local carol singers singing a curious Christmas song, which he noted for the “peculiarity and the utter absurdity of the words.” After outlining the first two of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," he went on to explain that the carol “proceeds in this ascending manner until on the twelfth day of Christmas the young lady receives … [an] astounding tribute of true love”—among which are “eight hares a-running” and “eleven badgers baiting.”

5., 6., 7., And 8. "Seven Squabs A-Swimming," "Eight Hounds A-Running," "Nine Bears A-Beating," And "TEN Cocks A-Crowing"

One of the earliest American versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was listed in The American Journal of Folklore in 1900. Credited to a contributor from Salem, Massachusetts, and dated to “about 1800,” there are no pipers, drummers, maids, or swans here (and lords and ladies had a number change). Instead, in their place are “ten cocks a-crowing,” “nine bears a-beating,” “eight hounds a-running,” and “seven squabs a-swimming.”

9. And 10. "Ten Asses Racing" and "Eleven Bulls A-Beating"

An edition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" included in Folk Songs From Somerset published in 1911 discarded the “pipers piping” and “lords a-leaping” in favor of “eleven bulls a-beating” and “ten asses racing.” In fact, not even the partridge in the pear tree made the final cut here: In its place was a “part of a mistletoe bough.”

11. and 12. "Ten Ships A-Sailing" and "Eleven Ladies Spinning"

In an 1842 edition of Specimens of Lyric Poetry, out went the “ten drummers drumming” and the “eleven lords a-leaping” (downgraded to only nine lords, still a-leaping) and in came “ten ships a-sailing” and “eleven ladies spinning.” Not only that, but this edition also explained in a footnote how "The Twelve Days of Christmas" might once have been used: “Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. The accumulative process is a favourite with children.”

13. "An Arabian Baboon"

An alternative Scots version of "The Twelve Day of Christmas" was reported in use in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century, before finding its way into a collection of Popular Rhymes of Scotland published in 1847. Although there are a handful of similarities between this version and the version we’d sing today (“ducks a-merry laying” and “swans a-merry swimming” both make an appearance), relatively little of what we’d recognize remains intact. “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day,” is the new opening line, and many of the gifts are given in sets of three rather than as part of a larger 12-part sequence—but it’s what the gifts themselves are that is the most striking. Alongside the swans and ducks, the king sends his lady “a bull that was brown,” “a goose that was gray,” “three plovers,” “a papingo-aye” (an old Scots dialect word for a parrot, although occasionally translated as peacock)—and, just when things can’t get any stranger, “an Arabian baboon.”

Merriam-Webster Declares They Its Word of the Year

artisteer/iStock via Getty Images
artisteer/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster’s 2019 Word of the Year is one that you probably use about a dozen times a day: they.

It’s been a big year for the gender-neutral pronoun, whose definition in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary was expanded to include its use as a singular nonbinary pronoun in September.

CNN notes that searches for they on the Merriam-Webster site have increased 313 percent over last year’s data, but the Word of the Year isn’t determined by growth alone. As Merriam-Webster senior editor and lexicographer Emily Brewster explained on WRSI, a word also needs to have considerable search spikes throughout the year in order to qualify.

“That says to us that a word is significant for that particular year; that it has some kind of important association with the actual year,” she said.

And they definitely had several landmark search spikes in 2019. According to CNN, look-ups peaked when nonbinary model Oslo Grace walked in Paris Fashion Week in January, when U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal disclosed that her child was gender-nonconforming in April, and during Pride celebrations around the world in June (this year was also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots). Many major style guides, including the Associated Press, have recognized they as an accepted singular pronoun in the past few years.

In addition to the Word of the Year, Merriam-Webster also published their top 10 most-searched terms, which paint an intriguing portrait of 2019 in review. There were political terms like quid pro quo, impeach, and clemency, the word the—which spiked after The Ohio State University tried to trademark it in August—and the enigmatic word camp, which baffled many a fashion blogger as the theme of the Met Gala in May.

[h/t CNN]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER