February 2nd, 2020

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Don't it Make My Green Eyes Blue?

Remember that bit in Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston Smith tries to see O'Brien's four fingers as five? It's especially hard, I think, because fingers are countable objects. Had fingerness been a graduated quality, it would have been relatively easy to move from seeing a small degree of fingerness to a larger one, just as the boiling frogs of legend think their bath is tepid. But O'Brien wasn't trying to make it easy.

All kinds of political analogies spring to mind, but this is a linguistic post. Yesterday, as I wandered round Bristol city centre, I made a point of trying to see the green traffic lights as blue - which is what they're called in Japanese. Partly this is because the Japanese language traditionally chops up the colour spectrum differently: the word for green (midori 緑) is of relatively recent date, I've heard, and in the old days blue (ao 青) used to serve for both, and still does in certain contexts. But actually the lights (at least in the UK) are a pretty bluey-green (or greeny blue) anyway, so the Winston-Smith shift wasn't hard to achieve, and soon I was able to train my brain to see them as blue first. It was kind of fun, as a psycho-linguistic experiment while shopping.

I have far greater difficulty seeing the orangey-yellow lights as amber. They have none of amber's lambency, which is its distinctive quality as a material. And, as a colour name - well outside the world of traffic lights, who uses it? How did such a hifalutin colour name get attached to such a quotidian object in the first place, in fact?