The Carbon Child Describes the Color Red

Some things are light, while others are dark. If we put a hand in a bucket of water, that water might feel cold to the touch. If we then put our hand in a bucket of iced water, and submerge again that hand in the original bucket, our first water now feels warm to the touch. Terms for color invite mistake and disappointment. A single hue of green cloth might be labelled pea green, sea green, olive green, grass green, sage green, evergreen, verdigris, lime green, chromium green, viridian. We refer to toys and clothes of baby blue, peacock blue, Nile blue, lemon yellow, straw yellow, rose pink, heliotrope, magenta, plum. We have no syntax for color, only vague nouns and imprecise adjectives. If music resembled a lark, canary, crow, cat, dog, wolf, whale, nightingale, would we refer to corresponding musical tones as larky, canary-like, wolf-pitched, nightingalish, or speak of a crow-like chorus with roughed grouse percussive tympani?

The carbon child sees a hat of faded red, and desires this hat. He is never content to merely call it red, for he knows that it has no resemblance to his brightly painted red truck, or the red of his mother’s adornments, or the red of the running fox. He understands that a lot of red is different from a little bit of red. He gropes for a means to define this particular red, and finding none, retreats in sullen silence, unable to attain his object of attraction. He is cramped by the poverty of language to describe. His sister is no better equipped, even though she speaks of tone, timbre, shade, tincture, shadow, trace and vestige. When she acclaims a color “painted in a minor key” she further confuses her brother and mother, reducing our three-dimensional model of perception to vague metonym. A sphere can be used to unite our dimensions, but she sees only a flat plane, encircled by the vague boundary of imprecise cognition.

–from A Color Notation, A.H. Munsell, 1910

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