My niece is puce, but she is not purple

Screenshot 2015-11-25 23.44.37
Google Image results for the search “puce.” Picture source: screenshot.

It has often been noted that male speakers of American English typically have much smaller color vocabularies than female speakers of American English.  One of my professors in college used this observation to help us learn to think through hypotheses.  Does it suggest that males have fewer color receptors than females?  Does it reflect not a fact about biology, but a fact about society?  How could you tell?  (It’s society.)

So, when my baby brother and I got into a Thanksgiving contest to see who knew the most English color terms, it was clear that things were not going to get very far, in the absence of my sister-in-law agreeing to adjudicate disagreements, and she quickly grew weary of us and disappeared to formulate a new adhesive or something.  It turns out, though, that Google Images is a great way to find out what a color term means.  Is chartreuse more of a yellow, or more of a green?  Go to Google Images.  (It’s more of a green.)  My brother doesn’t believe me that vermilion is a kind of red?  Go to Google Images.  So, when we started arguing about puce, the way to a resolution was clear.  You can see the results above.

What are all those fleas doing mixed in with the purple, though?  It took me a second to puzzle through, but you may remember this from an earlier post on high tense rounded vowelsPuce is French for “flea.”  “Wait,” said my brother—“haven’t you been calling my daughter ma puce?” Indeed, I have been—as you might remember from the same post, this is something that you could call a granddaughter, a niece, a young cousin.  See, this is one of the many reasons that I love my brother: if he runs into some string of phonemes that he doesn’t understand, he doesn’t ignore them—he tucks them away for safekeeping somewhere and looks for ways to figure out what they mean when the opportunity arises.  Runs in the family, I guess–I hope that ma puce will be the same when she grows up.

  • le chartreux: Carthusian monk; a breed of large cat with yellow eyes.
  • vermeil (adj.): vermilion, ruby.
  • le vermeil: “silver-gilt.”

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