Anthropologists and cognitive linguists have done a lot of work on the acquisition, psycholinguistic status, typology, and relation to neurophysiology of basic color terms. Now a world history professor has published a fascinating article on the evolution, elaboration, social status, and trickle-down economics of colors in human societies: Robert Finlay, Weaving the Rainbow: Visions of Color in World History (on Project Muse), Journal of World History 18:383-431. Here are a few excerpts (footnotes omitted).
Dyed garments were the most visible, widespread, and extensively used signs of social status and conspicuous consumption. Rural laborers and common townsfolk everywhere dressed in homespun fabrics of lackluster tones, mainly washed-out browns, blues, and grays. In northern Europe during the late medieval period, wool in natural shades of tan or gray provided most of the clothing. Clerics were supposed to wear linen liturgical vestments of pure white but had to settle for shades of light gray and yellowish-white since the various whitening agents, such as ash, chalk, and magnesium, yielded muddy results. In sixteenth-century England, some common hues for clothing were known as “horseflesh,” “gooseturd,” “rat’s color,” “pease porridge,” and “puke.” In eighteenth-century France, “flea’s belly,” “Paris mud,” and “goose-droppings” identified a dark brown cloth. In China at the same time, “camel lung,” “rat skin,” “nose mucus,” and “dribbling spittle” numbered among the disagreeable colors.
Only the elite could afford or legally wear clothing of certain colors. Sumptuary legislation almost everywhere prohibited low-status persons from dressing in the sort of colors and costumes worn by those in privileged circles. Japanese samurai, Chinese mandarins, Javanese chiefs, Indian Brahmans, Swahili oligarchs, Byzantine ecclesiastics, Venetian patricians, French aristocrats, Spanish hildagos, Aztec and Maya warriors—all dressed in costly dyed garments that set them proudly apart from color-deprived commoners….
Japanese color values were established by the Heian era (794–1185), a couple of centuries after sophisticated Chinese dyeing technology came to the islands. Since Japan entered a lengthy era of national isolation in 794, the prolonged cultural supremacy of the Heian court meant that its color values dominated the elite and remained a reference point on the subject for many centuries. In fact, the Heian preference for “cold and withered” (hiekareru) metaphorical colors of the mind paradoxically resulted in an exquisitely subtle perception of color, one that remains unparalleled in cultural history….
The word for “color” in ancient Japan was iro, which originally denoted a beautiful woman as well as desire for sex with one—the ideogram signifies intercourse, with one person lying on top of another. Iro evolved to evoke the idea of passing time and transient hues. In like fashion, the verb shimiru (to penetrate) came to mean “to dip in dye” and “to absorb color,” while also taking on the nuance of inconstant feelings and fading beauty. The Japanese looked down upon peaches and plums, the most admired flowering plants in China, as vulgar and voluptuous because of their deep-pink blooms. Instead, they esteemed the delicate pinkish-white tint of cherry blossoms, whose petals flowered so briefly. In general, contemporary Western taste highlights the climactic moment of the full-blooming rose and resplendent tulip, but traditional Japan favored the beginning and ending of things, transitional moments epitomized in barely opened buds, faded flowers, and withered autumn leaves.