I was working alongside a very nice man at the Open in July, and I happened to say that one of the players was wearing not a scarlet jumper but a ruby one. He looked at me with some suspicion. ‘What colour is this, then?’ he said, pointing to his own jumper. ‘Is it brown or green?’ I said it was plainly sludge-coloured. To soften the effect, however, I told him it suited him; but he was not reassured. He obviously didn’t quite believe me. ‘I think women make up these names for colours,’ he said. ‘It’s just whatever comes into their heads. My wife said something was periwinkle the other day. I mean, periwinkle, for heaven’s sake!’
It was an interesting theory, this. And I can see where it comes from, because I’ve experienced men being rubbish at colour identification. I once sat next to a tabloid reporter at Southwark Crown Court, who surprised me by continually consulting me for the right words to describe what was in front of his own eyes – and colour came into it repeatedly.
‘What’s that bag he’s got, is it a briefcase?’ he said. ‘No, that’s more like a hold-all,’ I said. ‘Is that coat beige?’ ‘No, it’s more like taupe.’ I started to wonder whether he was partially sighted, but in the end concluded he just had never written anything before. ‘Is that scarf gold?’ ‘No, it’s lemon.’ ‘What colour is that bag?’ ‘It’s ox-blood.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes, I am.’ ‘What would you call that file thing?’ ‘It’s a lever-arch.’ ‘Oh blimey, lever what?’
Is there a real gender divide on this? They do say men have more colour-blindness in the red-green area, so maybe it’s true that (some) chaps can look at a lemon and not see that it’s an entirely different colour from a Crunchie. But what a shame if the word ‘periwinkle’ truly does not bring a particular hue to mind.
I remember how important it was to me as a child that the words in my paint box didn’t get rubbed away or washed off, because I found them so lovely. As a result of that, I suppose, all my life I could distinguish between emerald and grass green, bottle green and sea green, olive green, lime and viridian. I once bought a decorating shade called Hazy Downs because it promised so much. But I have to say that it was a huge disappointment once it was on the wall. I wonder if colour names will be the last thing to go? When I’ve lost the words for everything else, maybe I’ll still be able to tell French navy from the English sort; or identify reds as cherry or rose. But in the meantime I love the idea of a conspiracy of women coming up with outlandish colour names just to bamboozle men. Where would they get the idea from in the first place? ‘Could you bring my handbag down, dear? It’s the lamp-coloured one.’ ‘I can’t decide whether we should paint the hall Frame or Tahiti, what do you think, darling?’ ‘Your eyes are pure Tunbridge, Henry, did anyone ever tell you that?’
It would be guaranteed to drive them mad. You can picture the scene as the wife groans, ‘Oh not again, Geoffrey. I said bring the lamp-coloured one and you brought this lump-coloured one!’
‘You did, dearest,’ the husband agrees, scuttling off again, trying hard to be helpful, pretending to understand, but getting increasingly fraught.
He looks in panic at a heap of handbags that are possibly green, possibly grey, possibly brown, possibly red. What can he do? ‘Is this it, dear?’ he ventures, at last. ‘Geoffrey, that’s a limp-coloured one! I said lamp very clearly. Why do I have to do everything myself?’
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