Color coding

From Bizarro, a new color-coded threat level for U.S. Homeland Security:

The lavender-lilac, or pinky-purple, color mauve (named for the flowers of the mallows, of the genus Malva) — Whistler, contemptuously, “Mauve is just pink trying to be purple” — became culturally, socially, and economically significant following on William Henry Perkin’s 1856 discovery of the synthetic dye mauveine (the first of the many aniline dyes). (See Simon Garfield’s Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World.) It eventually became associated with femininity (due to its use in women’s clothing, most notably by Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie), homosexuality (one gay man to another, contemplating a sunset, in Angels in America: “Purple? What kind of homosexual are you, anyway? That’s not purple, Mary, that color out there is mauve.”), and decadence (as in Thomas Beer’s book about the 1890s The Mauve Decade: American Life at the End of the Nineteenth Century — compare Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and all that).

The feminine/gay associations continue to be strong, as in the stereotype that (only) women and gay men know and use color terms like mauve and taupe; see Mark Liberman’s discussion, here, of xkcd’s recent explorations into color vocabulary as used by women and men.

4 Responses to “Color coding”

  1. slimmer Says:

    I thought it was interesting that the British TV show Doctor Who featured a bit of dialogue about mauve vs. red alerts in the episode The Empty Child. Since the Doctor is a 900+ year old travelling alien, he knows what’s what about alert colors outside of our silly standards on Earth.

    Rose: What’s the emergency?
    The Doctor: It’s mauve.
    Rose: Mauve?
    The Doctor: Universally recognised colour for danger.
    Rose: What happened to red?
    The Doctor: That’s just humans. By everyone else’s standards, red’s camp. Oh, the misunderstandings! All those “red alerts,” all that dancing.

  2. MCB Says:

    Arnold, do you know the etymology of the French “mauvais”, and its negative denotation/connotation? Is it related to mauve, either in a color or a plant sense?

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To MCB: Michael, this is one of those (incredibly frequent) accidents of phonological history — situations that fascinate lexicographers and etymologists, but puzzle ordinary people (who would really prefer that *all* phonological resemblances between words track back to a “deep” identity in the past).

    There are two mal- words here, apparently with no relationship whatsoever. French mauvais goes back to the classical Latin stem mal- ‘bad, evil’ (which can be seen in plenty of English words), while French mauve and English mallow go back to the classical Latin noun malva ‘mallow’, which the OED speculates is a borrowing from some Mediterranean language, possibly with a Semitic origin.

  4. MCB Says:

    Ah… wonderful explanation – thank you!

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