Properly Defining Color: Webster’s Dictionary and the Science of Color

Color is one of the hardest things to properly define. Most people do it by using comparatives such as “sunset orange,” “sky blue,” and “jade green”. But Webster’s Dictionary, wanting to be as direct and precise as possible, actually hired a color scientist to assist with color definitions for its Second Edition.

Isaac H. Godlove, who was chief color consultant for Webster’s from 1921 until 1935, had excellent credentials for the job. He 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, and director of the Munsell Research Laboratory, which created the Munsell Color Company, formed specifically to standardize colors.

Dr. Godlove created a system of defining colors by hue, saturation, and brilliance. Hue was the color itself, such as red or yellow; saturation described how the color looked under certain lighting conditions; brilliance (also known as brightness) was measured by how close it was to white. He defined ‘cherry’ as “a bright-red color; a color, yellowish-red in hue, of very high saturation and medium brilliance.” The entry for color is three columns long and includes graphs and two color plates.

Pleased with and even awed by his work, Webster’s editors called Godlove in to work on color definitions for the Third Edition. In the intervening years between the two editions, color names had become increasingly standardized. Popular use of these names had even been analyzed in mass-marketing campaigns, and their findings were to be incorporated into the new edition.

The Third Edition contained comprehensive color plates as well as an entire page dedicated to explaining the color charts and the descriptive names of each hue. There was even a five-page dye chart! Other additions and changes included:

  • Color definitions were now relational: each one was now something “more or less of” another. There were no more formulaic descriptions of a color’s hue, saturation, and brilliance.
  • Color names were defined by so-called ‘color specialists’ from retail giants Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. This resulted in consumer-style definitions such as ‘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.

In retrospect, the Third Edition took the ‘color as science’ concept too far. These definitions are too full-blown and subjective to make sense to the average person, except for ‘light blue’, ‘pale green’, or, in the cerise example ‘moderate red’. Accordingly, they were demystified and translated into simpler language in future editions: today, Webster’s defines the color blue as ‘the color of the sky’.

When Webster’s original 1847 edition was being revised during the 1850s, colors were more simply defined. Red was blood. Green was fresh grass. Those are descriptions we can easily relate to today, over 150 years later.

Science is an amazing and liberating field, but when it comes to describing the raw beauty of color, it seems simplicity is all we need.

Read more Segmation blog posts about art and color:

Color Advances Science

Art Illuminates Science

The Psychology of Color

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4 thoughts on “Properly Defining Color: Webster’s Dictionary and the Science of Color

  1. gliderpilotlee

    Great common sense information Mark, I had not looked this deeply. Most of us are not nearly as competent as the paint store “paint matching machine”. Our eyes are nearly magic though. The worst red I’ve ever tried to match was Ducatti motorcycle — whoa, the subtle orange and purple, almost like “flecks” mixed in.

    Reply
  2. Jannette Pazer (@sociallyclimb)

    While the history of color definitions in the dictionary is very interesting, there are a few errors in the history presented. The Munsell Color Company was not founded by the research lab, it was the other way around. Albert Munsell founded the Munsell Color Company in 1917, later the company created a foundation which led to the founding of the lab. This history can be found on the RIT website. Also, Albert Munsell created the three dimensional color order system and documented it in his 1905 book, A Color Notation (when Godlove was still only 13 years old). You can find more information about Albert Munsell on the Munsell website: http://munsell.com/about-munsell-color/munsell-color-company-history/albert-h-munsell/

    Reply

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