JF Ptak Science Books Part of the series Naming Things
(Almost) in the beginning were monsters. The epic battle that Moses wages early on is not with Pharaohs, but with the dragon(s?) that the creator itself had fought on the opening whisper of creation (Book of Job 26:12, Psalms 89:10) and who would again meet at the very last bits of the closing days. Behemoth, Leviathan, Rehab may all well have been monsters to these ancient folks, but they very well might look like rhinoceros or crocs or hippos to us. Monster demons like Rehab (Psalm 87:4), a slaughtering beast who would be reintroduced to a different part of the world as Tiamar who would or could also be known as the Red Sea, lifted straight from Mesopotamian mythology and placed directly into that of the Old Testament among the rest of the borrowed stories and beliefs, a problem by any other name.
Following names and their cyclonic twists, and absences and sudden re-emergence through the history of storytelling is dizzying—just consult your Robert Graves on myths if you want to have your memory plumbed (the great poet and writer doing not such a poetical or writerly job in this effort in my opinion though most people love it). Keeping an eye on the mix and mash of gods and goddess and associated super beings from thousands of years ago, the god of the Old Testament makes it very clear and precise about just who he is in his self-introduction to Moses: “I am the God thy Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6)
Equally almost in the beginning, again so far as the Bible is concerned, are colors—before that maybe everything was black and white, or just white, or maybe just black, depending on your epistemological concept of everythingness or nothingness. (It looks like green may be the first color mentioned in the bible, (Gen 1:30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so) though the mixing up of meat and veggie is a little confusing to me.))
Over the years color names themselves have creepethed among themselves like a vocabularic ocean, a fluid dynamic of naming. Names have flowed across their individual spectra, some names sticking, some not; the originator of the concept of the naming of "red", the original namer of the color, lost to the earliest and deepest part f the collective human memory.
I don't know where many of the names of colors come from, or why. Index to Color Names and Color Numbers of the Standard and Season Color Cards of America (published and created by the Textile Color Card Association), and published in 1923, is filled with color names whose meaning and origin are a mystery and whose necessity seem to hinge on sunspots. Which is fine, though it might be interesting to have had color names more dependent on that which went before. Like the names of the streets on most of Connecticut Avenue in D.C. are alphabetical, and once the first 26 letters or so are monosyllabicly employed, the second set starts with two syllables, and then three. It is a system that usefully indicates where long the long avenue you might be. It might be useful to employ such a method in color names; or not.
And I suspect it would be "or not", unless the poetry and art and music inherent in these formulations would be imaginatively employed
But on to the color names: Ambulance, Basketball, Bosom, Cowboy, Squirrel, Chit, Old, Nymph, Old mephisto, Pelt, Racket are examples of some of the mystery colors.
Some names which were part of institutionalized racism I'm sure are now gone: Arab, Negro, African; Bagdahd (?), Bombay Brown, Coolie Yellow, Coolie, Congo Brown, Egyptian Husk, Hankow (yellow), Kyoto Yellow, Korea Yellow, Mandarin Yellow, Punjab Brown, Kafir, Tar Baby.
But I've got to say, even though the names may not have much to do with the colors, most of the names in the pamphlet sound quite lovely, and many are yummy: London Smoke, Log Cabin, Leadville, Madonna, Naked, Pitchpine, Pompeii, Prelate, Smoked Pearl, Swamp, Lucky Stone, to name a few. Overall I doubt that this is what Newton, Goethe, Chevreul, Rood, Maxwell and the rest had in mind when they were figuring out what color *is*, but I do think that all of them had large enough poetic natures (Newton the weakest and Goethe by far the strongest) to appreciate the occasional beauty of naming. The unbelievable Shakespeare seems not to have spent that much time on color (so far as I know, and I don;'t much about the Bard), but (in a dear-sweet-god understatement) other people did: people like Richard Feynman synesthesically thought in mathematical color terms, others created musical instruments which would produce color from music while most of the rest of the world produced music which conveyed color, and on and on. And then of course there's the whole world of art.
But I won't go there now--I just wanted to follow this loose thread in what seemed to be a pretty inert pamphlet--in the end it opened itself to a lot of possibilities with just a little thinking.