Paint it mauve.

Dear Word Detective: I’d appreciate your detailing the origin of “chartreuse,” the color. I understand it’s from the color of a French liqueur. — Warren I. Pollock.

Ok, chartreuse. Which one is that again? Y’know what’s funny is that while I’m not colorblind and can easily tell red from green and so forth, I seem to be color-name blind. Major colors, no problem. But mention “chartreuse,” “mauve” or some other weirdo hue and I draw a complete blank. I mean, what the heck color is “fuchsia”? Sounds like something you’d catch fromĀ  toads. Teal? Ecru? What? Don’t bother telling me, because I’ll forget it in five minutes. My brain is apparently wired for primary colors only.

It is true that the color “chartreuse” is named for the color of “chartreuse,” a liqueur made by the monks of La Grande-Chartreuse, which is the chief monastery of the Roman Catholic Carthusian order in the Chartreuse range of the French Alps. The liqueur Chartreuse, made from herbs and brandy, is a pale apple-green (as distinct to the rich emerald green of absinthe, which is, of course, made of wormwood and pure evil). The monks, or their subcontractors, have been cranking out this Chartreuse stuff since the early 17th century, although the order was actually founded in 1084. (That’s 600 years they’re gonna have to explain on their time sheets.) The color “chartreuse” is halfway between green and yellow, and color aficionados recognize two variant hues, “chartreuse yellow,” skewed toward yellow, and “chartreuse green,” skewed toward guess what. Fire trucks and other emergency vehicles are often painted “chartreuse yellow” these days because it’s considered a more visible and distinctive color than the traditional red. That’s probably why a disaffected homeowner in a bland development near us repainted his entire house (formerly a noxious putty color) blinding chartreuse yellow in protest a few years ago. It was awesome, but the homeowners’ association was not amused and prolonged lawsuits ensued.

Elsewhere on the Spectrum of Mystery, it turns out that “mauve” is, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “Any of a range of light shades of purple between lilac and violet.” It’s a good thing they threw that “purple” in there, because I know that lilac and violets are two kinds of flowering plants, but I can’t quite picture them. Anyway, “mauve” (which appeared in the mid-19th century and is pronounced either “mawve” or “mowve” in the US) comes from the French “mauve” meaning “mallow plant,” mallow being a family of flowering plants related to cotton and okra.

“Ecru” is my kind of color. It’s the color of unbleached linen, i.e., a pale beige or off-white. The word “ecru” is, in fact, French for “unbleached” or “raw” (derived from the Latin “crudus,” raw). “Ecru” first appeared in print in English in 1869.

“Teal” comes from the Old English “tele,” which has close relatives in German and Dutch. A “teal” is a kind of small duck, in fact, according to the OED, “the smallest of the ducks” (to which I am tempted to reply “What ducks? I don’t see no ducks.”). Teals are supposedly common in Europe, Asia and America. The color “teal” (first appearing in 1923) is “a shade of dark greenish blue resembling the patches of this color on the head and wings of the teal.” (OED). I am told that to this day interior designers often carry an actual live teal in a small box in order to compare it to paint and fabric samples, but I think someone may be goofing on me. Lastly, “fuchsia” (also debuting in 1923) is a shade of red named after the flowers of the “fuchsia” (pronounced “FOO-shiyah”) shrub, which was named after the 16th century German botanist Leonhard Fuchs.

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