Taking a closer look at the colour red

Taking a closer look at the colour red

The names of colours have always fascinated me. Not the names of the colours in the rainbow – like red or blue – but the names of red and blue when used to describe the colour of lipstick, paint, cars or even qualities. Think Jazz Red lip gloss, a Volcano Red car, Signal Red paint or red-hot potato chips. Who are the people that come up with these names? What do these descriptive words say about the way we experience colour?


Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But research on lipstick names shows that Rich Cherry red and Watermelon pink outsell Rose red. According to research, lipstick shades are more popular when related to food colours (24%) than to sex and romance (10%) or even flowers (5%). A study called ‘Truly Toffee and Raisin Hell: A Textual Analysis of Lipstick Names’ categorised the names of 1 722 lipsticks from 52 brands in order to ‘understand how meaning is constructed through lipstick naming’. Food-related shades were most popular while variants named after birds and animals were least sought-after.

Red-coloured cars are never basic red. They must invoke images of speed, heat and desire – like Flash Red (Volkswagen), Velvet Red (Mercedes), Laser Red (Ford), Volcano Red Metallic (Audi TT), Firenze Red (Land Rover Evoque), Ferrari Red (Ferrari) and Cherry Red (Toyota). And while talking about red cars, research by the online retailer Halfords in the UK shows that red cars attract more bird droppings than any other car colour. Red vehicles made up 18% of cars marked by birds, while blue followed in second place at 14%.

Although different countries and cultures may attach different meanings to the same colour, people react fairly consistent to the colour red. Red is the colour of blood or fire. Symbolically, it suggests life, love, action and vibrancy. The English language has many expressions in which red calls up images of luxury and life force – like red-carpet treatment and red-blooded men, and painting the town red. (In Afrikaans we have ‘n Oulap se rooi maak mooi and Hoe rooier, hoe mooier.) Even the adjectives we add to narrow down red colours suggest vibrancy – like bright red, warm red, vivid red, flamboyant red or the trending vampire red.

I don’t know if this is still the case, but some years ago I came across a study on the colours of clothes worn by top-performing teams in any kind of sport. Most of winning teams were dressed in red (not pink, red).

Red is also associated with war gods, danger or anger. We see red when we are angry. Our finances go into red when we’re in trouble. We’re caught red-handed or red-faced. We have red-light districts, red tape and red alerts.

The ability of language to renew itself always amazes me. Crayola Crayons has red crayons called torch red, razzmatazz and jazzberry jam. Dulux has red paints called Party Surprise and Candy Love. What shades of red have you recently come across?

Any language-related comments or questions? Contact Amanda at amandam@mweb.co.za.

amanda
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