Sea foam

The Zits from August 31st:


About color naming, and its association with sex/gender. The stereotype is that males use only a small number of color names, but that females draw on a much more diverse collection of names, and that this difference follows from differences — perhaps learned, but perhaps inborn — in the interests and inclinations of the sexes, with females engaged in fashion and interior decoration (where a rich color vocabulary is useful) in a way that males are not.

First, brief notes on seafoam, the hue. It starts with sea foam, the foam of the sea, specifically (as from Wikipedia):

Sea foam, ocean foam, beach foam, or spume is a type of foam created by the agitation of seawater, particularly when it contains higher concentrations of dissolved organic matter (including proteins, lignins, and lipids) derived from sources such as the offshore breakdown of algal blooms. These compounds can act as surfactants or foaming agents. As the seawater is churned by breaking waves in the surf zone adjacent to the shore, the presence of these surfactants under these turbulent conditions traps air, forming persistent bubbles that stick to each other through surface tension. Due to its low density and persistence, foam can be blown by strong on-shore winds from the beachface inland.

From this, a seawater-related color name. From Merriam-Webster online:

seafoam: a brilliant to light green that is very slightly lighter than chrysoprase

The color term is not in OED2, NOAD2, or AHD5, possibly because the compilers thought it was a straightforward figurative transfer: sea foam, sea-foam, or sea foam ‘the color of sea foam’. But in fact the color term refers to a type of sea green, the color of the sea beneath the bubbles of sea foam, which are themselves frothy white and light greyish-brown , not unlike the color of Jeremy’s shirt in #1:

(#2) Sea foam off Ocean Beach in San Francisco

Compare these varieties of the color seafoam, from the color-hex site:

(#3) The second bar is close to the most common referent for seafoam

Now, as to sex/gender and color vocabulary, see the discussion by Mark Liberman in Language Log on 5/5/10. When asked to name colors (in English), men and women both supply basic color terms (with, possibly, some gender differences in the extension of a few of these term). But the color vocabulary alluded to in #1 isn’t the basic color vocabulary, but the much larger inventory of specific color terms (including seafoam and chrysoprase) used to name paints (artists’ paints, housepaints, indoor paints (for walls and furnishings), nail polish, model airplane and car paints, etc.), the colors of fabrics, automobile colors, the colors of crayons and colored pencils, and so on.

As far as I can tell, there is no evidence at all that males and females differ in their innate abilities to disinguish shades or hues of things, but in certain contexts, it does appear that the sexes differ in the discriminations they are inclined to make, and in their knowledge of terms to use for these discriminations, and all this is surely a matter of sociocultural learning.

Two of these contexts are fashion and interior decoration, domains that are stereotypically associated with females (in contrast to oil painting and model building, domains stereotypically associated with males). In a further step, domains associated with females are taken to be marked — male concerns are the norm — leading to the widespread belief that in general females are especially sensitive to color distinctions and especially knowledgeable about color vocabulary.

True, for fashion and interior decoration, on the whole, females show more interest in the domains than males (though I’d be interested in seeing some empirical studies of the means and the differences between them), leading to pages like this one, from the Chaviano Couture blog (the work of a woman)

(#4) 6 is mint chocolate chip ice cream, 7 is a men’s bowtie

While looking through sites this past week I came across images of mint and seafoam green which I loved. It’s a fresh color which looks gorgeous with white and cream accents. So for this week it’s my color of choice.

(Ah, memories: my high school class colors were mint green and black. Delicious.)

2 Responses to “Sea foam”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Most English speakers have eleven primary color names [these are the basic color terms (for English] referred to in my posting]: white, black, red, yellow, green, blue, purple, orange, gray, brown, and pink. Most men (myself included – I have normal color vision) rarely use secondary color names (secondary being defined as either (for example) “aqua is a kind of blue” or “only women and furniture are described as blonde”. [Here you repeat the stereotype, very nicely.]

    Paul Kay’s Color Names Project – close to 50 years ago – tried to compare primary color names across languages. I don’t know whether his results weren’t reproducible or what, but you rarely hear of his studies. [I’ve posted on Language Log and here several times on the Berlin & Kay original work, and on some really fascinating more recent follow-ups to it.]

    Usually if a man uses secondary color names, he uses them in his occupation (house painters an obvious example). I think gay men may be somewhat more likely to use secondary color names – the poet Mark Doty is my favorite example. [Again, a nice replication of the stereotype. It’s problematic because it’s based on impressions rather than actual observations and fails to take into account the variation within the groups in question. There probably is some effect for modern American upper-middle class people, but it might not be a big one; we just don’t know.]

  2. Joseph F Foster Says:

    One qualified / secondary color term that in my experience some men of my generation know is field green. But I’ve never encountered a woman who knows it. It was the English rendition of the color of German Army uniforms in WW II. That’s probably because when we were boys, we read a lot more about WW II and saw more war movies than the girls did.

    The term is linguistically interesting because the German term is feldgrau, not *feldgrün, i.e. ‘field gray’, not ‘field green’. So it’s more of a ‘Loan Carryover’ Lehnübertragung than an actual loanword, Lehnwort. I.e. it was borrowed no doubt but got Anglicized with respect to the English classification of colors and where the boundaries are “drawn”.

    One of the things Welshmen with an eye twinkle sometimes do with English speakers is use English color words but with Welsh boundaries. So glas will be used to cover ‘blue, green, grey, silver, …’ and talk of blue leaves, blue grass (and not just in Kentucky), blue goats, …&c.

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