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Crowd-Sourced Color Names by XKCD

timv's picture

Yesterday, I was looking at the formatting options for a graphing package and noticed an option to use named colors "from the xkcd survey."

That was a new thing to me. As it turns out, the author of the xkcd.com comics created an online survey of color names about five years ago and over 200,000 users contributed; discussion of results here. It's pretty funny and it's also real science. Because color names are weird.

You can also look at a list sorted alphabetically by name which reveals some rather interesting properties of the set.

Connection to our little corner of existence: I'm guessing roadskater's long since grown tired of my feeble joke, but I called a printed cloth banner, something like what's below, "the national flag of Roadskater.net" when he unfurled it and flew it from the trunklid of his car in the parking lot of Country Park, pondering the color choice for another batch of jerseys.

Pantone chart on fabric


roadskater's picture

It's Good to Be Pretty and Even Better to Be Seen

Sorry so late to respond. I must have been distracted for a long time! Let's see 2 Carolina Centuries, 2 A2As, Holidays, work, training, eating, goofing off. Maybe i couldn't handle thinking about color names without being sad about not making a yearly Roadskater.net jersey. Ha. Anyway this is a great post and deserves a reply, so here it is, lame as it will be. You know all of this timv, but for those interested who may not, here goes.

Anyway, back to the color names. These are extremely useful, and Pantone has made a bundle of money printing the color-fan books used to color match and to communicate about printed color...for example, the exact color of your company logo. They deliver specific ink color that is predictable where it is most important to get it right. Reflex blue is a popular named color that used to be a popular choice for business cards and such at a local printer running a press in the very same ink-smelling building. "Here you can have any one of these colors for the base price; If you want us to mix colors, you're gonna pay for dat."

Of course most printed items done on paper and cardboard I would guess use CMYK, even if they are trying to achieve a color agreed upon using the Pantone color matching system books. (Take a look at the boxes containing processed foods; if you see color blocks on the underside flaps, it means those are the colors they want to be sure to get right, because people don't want to buy boxes of food that don't look right. My understanding is that they use cyan, magenta, yellow, black, PLUS spot colors they care about most, like logo colors and colors that make their food look like it want to be eaten by you who went to the store hungry again.)

Many things that used to come in just Pantone colors and may have been screen printed (like tee shirts, maybe jerseys, say) later could be any color, and could have gradient fades. So that all sounds like they're not using single color pigments of ink, but a digital system that produces essentially all colors using a dye-sublimation process. 

If Pantone's so great for specifying colors, then what's the problem? It's proprietary intellectual property, and they want to make money from their great implementation of a great idea. Most open source software makers are not comfortable using proprietary intellectual property, and others don't want to pay to use it.

So for that and other reasons there is a need for color names that have a specific meaning, in the RGB (color on a web page or other light-screen display) and CMYK (color as printed using cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to make the blacks really black) spaces.

In the XKCD set, for colors like "blueygreen," I wonder if it was blue y (and) green or more like "blueish green," and why not just call it "bluegreen"? Oh. I see. All three of those are there. Bluey must mean something different than blueish to the people who took the survey. Language about colors! OMG. I take it that those with no y or ish are the more direct mixes. Blueishgreen is oh so slightly darker than blueishgreen. 

Also, about the national flag of Roadskater.net, that's pretty much right. For those who wonder, it was a flag-sized white piece of jersey fabric with color blocks of Pantone colors printed on the jersey material. An irritable jersey manufacturer sent these to customers who really cared what blue it was so they could actually see the colors as they would be printed on (what was then) the fabric they offered. It helped more than any amount of discussing colors or studying their CMYK equivalents (which does also help, but doesn't show how they look on a particular fabric, as different fabrics will have different saturation of color capabilities, and varying amounts of sheen or reflectivity...which is why a jersey may look a lot more colorful wearing even neutral grey polarized lenses...they cut the reflections from the surface of the fabric that tend to white-out the color saturation...not speaking technically here). 

Anyway this color block flag-sized fabric went with me many places and times of day and during varied weather as I tried to decide on each year's jersey color. Notice for example, that hi-viz green is bright early and late in the day and on cloudy days when the light is bluer, but hi-viz orange kicks it when the light is more yellow on sunny days and in the middle parts of the day. That's my take on it, anyway. So I wanted to see how the jerseys were going to look in different weather and different light, and there was no way we'd have one too close to the color of tree leaves or tree trunks or asphalt, because:


It's good to be pretty, and even better to be seen. (Talkin' 'bout the jersey, now.)

I generally tried to flip between cool and warm colors from year to year, and tried to consider how many team members that year (or jersey wearers) might have tolerance for colors often considered in various parts as too timid or soft, or whatever. If you're going for certain colors the guys may not be as happy wearing, you at least want to make it highly saturated version of it...make it "bold," was my thinking. And if it's a "sissy" color you'd better have a big black bold logo there to make a statement.

Unfortunately on the year we finally went for the "Hot Magenta," it was a bit milder and the manufacturer made all of the logos too small except on the smallest jerseys...they inexplicablyused only one size of art, so the 3XL had the same sized logo as the XS. Inexplicable except perhaps from taking more orders from more customers than they could do and buying new print machines that used a new process and meant all their art had to be laid out again by the artists even if there were NO CHANGES. I can only say they made great jerseys most years, but it was a real pain talking with anyone other than a salesperson who knew less about their product than I did, because every year they were a new salesperson.

Subsequent prints of this Hot Magenta jersey, however, came out spanking great, with lots of pop in the color contrasting and a logo that was close to too big on XL because we wanted it bold all the way to 3XL. Colors that had been great in their early fabric and printing process, looked OK but not as rich, later. I think the purples and blues, which had been no real problem, when reprinted a few years later (the "True Violet" and "Sky Blue") did not look as saturated. It was like the fabric didn't take the blue as well as Cherry Red, Sunflower Yellow, even Ocean Teal (which looks great with the orange spot color).

I would often say in amazement, and I don't know if someone else said it first, but "the hardest thing to get every year is the same thing as before, just different colors." We made very few changes through the years because I wanted all the jerseys throughout the year to maintain the look of a set, so people who didn't want or couldn't afford a new jersey could wear a previous one just fine and look like part of the team. We did add the Carolina Century logo. OK that's too much about jerseys and colors! Oh there's so much more to say about bat-wings on the sleeves, and how it all finally came down to not being able to do business with that jersey mf'er (that's short for manufacturer) ever again. 

I bet a lot of this info is still on http://skatejerseys.com! Oh yeah. Including photos in sun and shade, white balanced. All that.

timv's picture


That's a good explanation of Pantone colors and the problem of color matching. I should add that the xkcd survey was based on viewing and identifying HTML "hex triplets", which aren't part of any calibrated color system, something that the survey's author acknowledges. Color renditions can vary "due to different computer screen" as stated in many eBay auctions for inexpensive unbranded clothing, and his analysis did at least include looking for significant differences between LCD and (increasingly rare) CRT screen users.

I remember your concerns about certain jersey buyers and "I can't wear <color>." It makes me wistful for the multihued 80s and early 90s. These days, it seems, all cars are some shade of grey, girly girls only wear pink, and manly men only wear camo.

Btw, here's an interesting new take on color naming that I spotted some time after posting this article:

The World Has Millions of Colors. Why Do We Only Name a Few?

Their fundamental idea is that, in languages and cultures with few color names, there are more names for "the warm colors – reds, oranges and yellows" because the things that are most interesting, "people, animals, berries, fruits and so on," are likely to be those colors. The observation of more color names coming into languages as technology advances is explained by "improved ways of purifying pigments and making new ones" making it possible to "make objects that differ based only on color."

Dictionaries say that the -ish suffix entered our language from French and can either create an adjective from a noun implying "belonging to," as in English, British, and Spanish; or it can create an adjective from another adjective with an implied sense of "somewhat" or "rather." Meanwhile, the -y suffix comes from the Germanic -ig, and carries a meaning of "full of." The first word that comes to mind is zaftig, which is Yiddish, from the German saftig, "juicy." (Saft is cognate to the English sap.)

I've wondered to myself at times about the (not universal) English practice of assigning names ending with -y to places, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Tuscany, Normandy, Brittany, Saxony, and the like; or the colloquial Araby, or the rustic character in old movies who says "Virginny" and "Alabammy." Indeed, Germany is full of Germans and Saxony is full of Saxons. Normandy is full of Normans and Brittany is full of Bretons, which are close enough I guess, but Italy isn't really full of Itals and Hungary is actually full of Magyars. I'll leave Virginny for someone else to ponder.

eebee's picture

German -isc

I wonder if -ish entered our language through French invasions or Germanic ones? In the past I have wondered why it's witzig (funny ha ha) but komisch (funny peculiar), and eifersuchtig but neidisch (both jealous). I had assumed that words like English and Englisch evolved in parallel directly from Germanic roots, but I guess it's always possible we came to use it via the French or Latin. Here's a brief mention in a book I'd like to know all the contents of without reading. 

As with most language or pronunciation oddities, they usually irk me until I find out how they evolved. "Tuscany" bugs the crap out of me. What's so hard about saying "Toscana"? I haven't looked it up but suspect Victorian Britain might be to blame on that one, along with many other insults. 

Regarding manly men, I've seen an elderly gent walking along Peachtree Street wearing brightly colored suits. I loved the yellow one and told him so. He said "Wah thankyeh".  Sometimes he wears other boldly colored suits. I'm hoping it catches on. 

timv's picture


Interesting points there, eebee. The book you reference is fascinating to me too despite knowing basically zero German.

It can be aggravating when references don't back up their word derivations. There's often more then one plausible way it could have happened, and it really would be nice to have a link to the justification and some examples that support such a claim.

I can see how it might be because a word entered a language at a certain time when another language is known to have had a strong influence. (E.g., the ~400 years when England was under the rule of French kings.) Or maybe some shade of meaning is carried over from one source that isn't present in another. Could historisch lead to terms like "historical society" in English, but not convey the sense of someone saying that, for example, a book is "history-ish" rather than history? Maybe it had to pass through French for that, I dunno.

Fwiw, I can think of place names like Derry, Kerry, Tipperary, Kilkenny, and Killarney in Ireland, with a similar-sounding ending meaning "pertaining to" some person or people in their Gaelic/Irish language names. So I guess they could also be the ones behind this tendency.

eebee's picture


Here you go! I think some of our band members wear some of these. 


timv's picture


Neat! I'm impressed as much as anything by how low their prices are. Do you have any sense of how substantial the material is? Looking for more about them, I saw a comment somewhere saying that they aren't costumes and are made to be worn more than once, faint praise but that's a baseline anyway.

I'm reminded of the stuff from Loudmouth Golf, who will once again sponsor the Norwegian Olympic Curling Team this year. (Although, re manly men and what they wear, I've definitely seen more LPGA players wearing Loudmouth skorts than PGA players wearing their trousers.)

With names like Guus, Jelle, and Jasper, the Opposuits guys could have been road musicians who backed up Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid. But it turns out that they're Dutch (translation), which explains the "oranje" suit on the guy in the middle of the picture on their "About" page. I'll be looking for their suits around the skating oval in Pyeongchang.

eebee's picture


I could spend a lot of time and money on that site (Loudmouth Golf)!

It's good to know someone has already gone to the trouble to create all this clothing, since it's not a passion of mine to make it all myself for various performances. 

I'm not sure about the Opposuits clothing material, but yes I think it's substantial.  I think one of our trombonists was wearing this yesterday.  I'll ask next time! Some of these have actually made it to mall department stores (JC Penney' etc.). 

roadskater's picture

Peachy Three-Piece Suit

In the late 70s, were a male either brave or stupid enough, and not wanting to wear a definitely-silly-non-tuxedo-looking-tuxedo, one could wear a peach-hued (three-piece, even) Stanley Blacker suit to a high school prom. I ain't namin' names, but even if the suit brought out the color in the young lady's dress, it may have also brought out a rosy color in her face from embarrassment to stand next to this peacock. We'll never really know. :o)

eebee's picture


...Is the name of the emotional support peacock who was banned from a flight recently. 

I'm sure your prom date would have been blushing with giddiness. The young can pretty much get away with wearing anything.

roadskater's picture

Yes But the Young

Yes among adults, but the young can often be embarrassed by the young they're photographed next to at the prom. But thanks for thinking "giddiness." I'll take it!

timv's picture


"Definitely-silly-non-tuxedo-looking-tuxedo" could have been one of the answers submitted in the xkcd color names survey.

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