Saturday, December 12, 2009

Blue and Different Kind of Blue, for Fancy People

Word of the week! Times two! Words of the week, if you’d rather! And both of them chromatically themed! And in the same one-sixth of the spectrum, no less!


Beyond the sixteen members of your typical Crayola starter set, there exists a more sophisticated set of colors and corresponding vocabulary. Unfortunately, most of these words are of use only to artists, interior decorators, people who want to sound smart and people who’d rather bystanders didn’t understand what they’re talking about. Appropriate though incarnadine, ponceau or minium may be to describe a given shade of red, these words overshoot the intersection of accuracy and pomposity and land square in Asshole Territory. However, in case the appropriate situation comes along, I’m offering you these two fancy terms, both of which refer to specific shades of blue. Consider this the third in a growing series of color-related words of the week, behind sinople and zinnober.

First:

perse (PURS) — adjective: dark blue or grayish purple.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word comes from the Middle English pers, which in turn comes through Old French from the Medieval Latin Persicus, meaning “Persian.” The word came to me, however, after I read Cintra Wilson’s September 23 Critical Shopper article, in which Wilson reviewed Maxfield, a high-end vintage shop on Melrose that has ties to the Perse family. As she always does, Wilson finished the article with three squibs set off with verbally related kickers — in this case Perse, Purse and Perverse. Wilson meant the family Perse, but her use of the word nonetheless led me to learn that it would also be a color. (It actually led me to learn a lot of fancy color words, thanks to this list, which appeared on the resulting Google search.) I’d guess that the Perse family is more likely to have ties to what we now call Iran than the color, but I’d guess that the Perses know the chromatic sense of their name, given that they’ve trafficked in fashion retail for so long.

Second:

pavonated — (PAV-on-ay-tid) — adjective: 1. peacock blue. 2. like or colored like a peacock.
Finding much about perse was tough, but pavonated was even tougher. Pavonated, like pavonine, comes from the Latin pavo, meaning “peacock.” (Never would have expected that I would have reason to use pavonine more than once on this blog.) Pavonated apparently originated as a heraldic term referring to a peacock close — with close referring to a bird depicted with its wings at the sides of his body instead of distended, as if in flight. (The same website that defines a peacock close also notes, however, that close should only refer to birds that might be depicted in flight, such as an eagle or falcon, and not the ones that more often strut around on their legs, so peacock close is apparently bad usage.) At some point, the term apparently lost its associations with the bird itself and instead came to imply bird’s color. Oddly, it seems to only exist as an past tense participle adjective — that is, as something that looks like a verb but isn’t. The verb to pavonate doesn’t seem to be have been used enough to appear in any dictionaries known to Google. Not unheard of, given current English words like disgruntled.

So there you go: two obscure but potentially handy words to describe shades of blue you may encounter. Use them wisely.

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