Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Amber Blues

Junked metaphors

Lately, I keep feeling a nostalgia for the vocabulary of the analogue world I grew up in.  A certain linguistic vigour seems to be fading away, as the old connections between language and the real physical world are replaced or weakened by more intangible digital equivalents.

Our most vivid vocabulary tends to leak into everyday use from other domains -- mainly the worlds of work, domestic labour, and entertainment -- and in the days when most work involved bashing and bending, inking and blotting, sieving and sorting, and a thousand other precisely named actions and processes, there was a lively, physical, real-world turn to our metaphors and similes.  Everyone still sort of knows what it means to blot our copy book, to go through something with a fine-tooth comb, or to get up a head of steam; such expressions have a vivid materiality that can outlive their real-world application.  But the digital, electronic world is itself already almost entirely a world of metaphors, where most user interfaces rely on quaint analogue gestures to perform mysterious digital tasks.  You page through a menu, dial in a setting, press the button, and complicated electronic stuff just happens.

Naturally, old figures of speech do get replaced by new ones; as we might say in 2015, they eventually reach their sell-by date.  But it's the wider vocabulary I'm talking about.  So many finely-tuned verbs, nouns and adjectives have been usurped by all-purpose equivalents, in a parallel process to the inflation that turns "tremendous", "terrific", "outstanding", "brilliant", "excellent", "amazing" and "awesome" into mere synonyms for "quite good". I was recently amazed to overhear someone describe an action as "quite dainty".  Dainty!  I half expected them to be dressed in a frock coat and top hat.  It's hard to imagine a word like that, with the degree of delicate discrimination it implies, in the vocabulary of many contemporary Britons.

Take colours, for example.  In the digital world, we can actually be very precise about a particular shade of orange, say, using the RGB (Red Blue Green) values used on a computer screen.  Oh, let's say, #FFA310  -- nice!  Designers, of course, have long used the Pantone system to specify colours for CMYK (Cyan Magenta Yellow Black) devices like offset printers, which might be seen as a sort of digitisation avant la lettre. Pantone 130 is a very similar orange to RGB #FFA310. But while this precision is an advance and incredibly useful to the specialist it is utterly meaningless to everyone else. Colours need names.

Colours have names, of course.  If you've ever owned a decent paintbox or set of coloured pencils, you'll recognise Prussian Blue, Chrome Yellow, Gamboge, and Crimson Lake -- less precise than Pantone, but far more evocative.  If you've ever been unlucky enough to help choose what colour to paint a room, you'll also recognise names like Nile Green, Terracotta, Duck Egg Blue, and the ubiqitous Magnolia.  And yet, despite this readily available nomenclature, colour names are increasingy rarely heard, and imprecision is the norm;  "kind of blue" is not just the name of an album by Miles Davis.  I particularly miss hearing the names of those interesting midway shades like "buff" and "tan" and "fawn" in everyday speech; they've all been subsumed into "sort of beige".  And who now would even think of using a word as precise as "amber" to describe the sort of orangey-browny colour of the middle traffic light?

Name that colour!


Zouk Delors said...

But ... that dress!

Of course, no-one's actually used a tooth-comb, coarse or fine, since dental floss came out so no-one talks about them except metaphorically. Unsurprisingly, turns of phrase employing unfamiliar vocabulary often get malapropised -- hence the ubiquity of damp squids these days. I mean, wtf is a squib anyway? (Click here for a clue).

PS The sky in your photo is mellow yellow.

Mike C. said...


I don't get that whole dress thing ("is it blue and black or white and gold?") -- I've seen photos which are clearly and unambiguously one or the other -- depends totally on colour balance and screen rendering more than any psychological factor, imho.

Interesting use of "squib" in John Donne's "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day":

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays


Zouk Delors said...

I Googled "blue gold dress images", and some looked one to me, and some the other. I think the point is that two people looking at the dress in real life at the same point in the space-time continuum can each see it differently, something that highlights the fact that we actually see with our brains at least as much as with our eyes. This week's All in the Mind on BBC R4 sheds a little light.

Thanks for the poetry. Video of the sun's latest squibs here. What colour is that?!

Interesting to think that if, in the future, those lines were all that remained of Donne, you could work out the approximate latitude he lived at from the "seven hours" -- which is directly related to one reason I doubt Ramadan will ever be big amongst the Inuit peoples.

Mike C. said...


I find those violent solar, um, emissions deeply disturbing -- that all life should depend on something that periodically goes off like a titanic firecracker feels less than reassuring... You can imagine looking up one day and seeing fiery bits going everywhere, just before it all goes dark and very cold.