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Sun September 15, 2013
Author Interviews

Read The Rainbow: 'Roy G. Biv' Puts New Spin On Color Wheel

Originally published on Wed September 18, 2013 6:50 am

There are a lot of fascinating details hiding below the surface in the world of color. For instance, scientists once thought the average color of the entire universe was turquoise — until they recalculated and realized it was beige.

In Japan, you wait at a stoplight until it turns from red to blue, even though it's the same green color as American stoplights.

And in World War II, the British painted a whole flotilla of warships pinkish-purple so they'd blend in with the sky at dusk and confuse the Germans. That's right — pink warships.

Design writer Jude Stewart's new book, Roy G. Biv, is full of facts like these. She tells NPR's Rachel Martin about the relationship between language and color, and what it's like to live with synesthesia.


Interview Highlights

On why she wanted to write about color

I'd always been fascinated by color. When I was really little, I was fascinated with this book called Color Me Beautiful and it was basically a guide to help choosing the best colors for your skin tone.

... Well I remember just paging through that book and it was just magical. They would show pictures of someone draped in their "right color" for their skin tone and they would just look dewy and glowing and suffused with light, and then they'd put them in the wrong color and they would look like they'd just shrunk.

The point is that, you know, color is affecting us a lot more than we realize. It's so ubiquitous that it's basically invisible until the moments where you notice it again.

On what "Roy G. Biv" stands for

"Roy g biv" is a mnemonic that helps you remember the order of the colors of the rainbow. So it's red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

On the number of colors in the rainbow

There aren't actually, strictly speaking, seven colors in the rainbow. But when [Isaac] Newton came out with his observation about the rainbow, there was some pressure for him to make it be seven colors so that it would match the musical scale, so he had to kind of come up with indigo on the fly.

On the surprisingly universal relationship between language and color

In 1969 these two linguists, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, did a survey of 20 different languages that were completely unrelated to each other. And they found that as languages develop differing names for colors, those names always enter the language in the same order. So that order is black, white, red, green and yellow, blue, and then brown.

So, if they're going to have only three words for colors, those words will almost always be black, white and red.

On why red is always the third color

I have my own little theory which is as I was doing the red chapter I found that red is just this primal color that, you know, unsurprisingly means blood to many cultures. And so I think probably it's just that brightness, that vitality, that sort of absolutely necessary quality to that color that makes it assert itself.

On how pink wasn't always considered a color for girls

It's an interesting question because we tend to feel that that's a really immutable rule that must have been true forever, but in fact it's a very relatively recent thing that that has become ironclad — actually in the '70s.

But, earlier, it was a question simply of what goes with the child's complexion. So the rule of thumb was often if you have brown eyes a baby looks good in pink no matter what their gender is. Blue eyes — blue.

Sometimes there were other rules. So for example, in Catholic parts of Germany it was the fashion to dress your little girl in blue, because it was an homage to the Virgin Mary. And then the boys would be in pink, because that was a watered-down version of a sort of traditionally masculine color, red.

On living with synesthesia

Synesthesia is, as I describe it, a harmless brain quirk in which you associate some stimulus with a color. So, for me, letters and numbers always have the same color. ... Seven is a sort of pale butter yellow and four is kind of a hay color, kind of a tan.

... Synesthesia is something that runs in families. So what we discovered recently — I was visiting with my parents and my brother, we were all sitting around the pool, and my brother and my mom both did not realize that they had synesthesia. We were talking about the book and my mother just blurts out, as I was describing 74 is this color, my mom says, "No, it's this color!" And then my brother had another, he's like, "No, I always thought of it as this color!" And to both of their surprises it seemed they did have synesthesia.

My father, meanwhile, has no idea what we're talking about.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you peer into the world of color, there are a lot of fascinating details hiding below the surface. For instance, scientists once thought the average color of the entire universe was turquoise until they recalculated and found out its beige. And in Japan, at a stoplight, it turns from red to green like in a lot of places. But in Japan, the word for green is actually blue.

There's a new book filled with facts like these. It's called "Roy G. Biv."

JUDE STEWART: Roy G. Biv is a mnemonic that helps you remember the order of the colors of the rainbow. So it's red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

MARTIN: This is designed writer Jude Stewart. She's the author of "Roy G. Biv," and the perfect person to tell the antidote nine the acronym.

STEWART: There aren't actually, strictly speaking, seven colors in the rainbow. But when Newton came out with his observation about the rainbow, there was some pressure for him to make it be seven colors so that it would match the musical scale. So he had to kind of come up with indigo on the fly.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So, I mean you're in design, you obviously think about color for a living. But what got you to the point where you wanted to write a book about it?

STEWART: Well, you know, I had always been fascinated by color. When I was really little, I was fascinated with this book called "Color Me Beautiful." And it was basically a guide that helps using the best colors for your skin tone. And I used to just...

MARTIN: Oh, yeah.

STEWART: Remember that? Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You know, kind of like in the '80s. Like, what was your...

STEWART: Yes.

MARTIN: ...color scheme.

STEWART: I remember just paging through that book and it was just magical. It would show pictures of someone draped in their quote-unquote, "right color," for their skin tone. And they would just look dewy and glowing and suffused with light. And then, they'd put them in the wrong color and they would look like they'd just shrunk.

The point is that, you know, color is affecting us a lot more than we realize. It's so ubiquitous that it's basically invisible until the moments where you notice it again.

MARTIN: In your book, you kind of explore how different cultures approach color.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And there are some really interesting differences. Can you walk us through a couple of examples?

STEWART: Well, let's see. I've lived for many different periods of time in Berlin, so my husband and I speak German. And, you know, we would say green with envy. And they'd say they're gelb with envy, so they're yellow with envy. When they are angry, they are black with anger. Even when they have bruises, they described them as (Foreign language spoken), so it's yellow and green where we would say black and blue. The culture that's very close two ours, Germany, but yet, their language has all the strange color shift in its metaphors.

MARTIN: There are things that are culturally universal about color. You write about something called the Berlin-Kay Color Order, which is fascinating. It's a way to explain how languages add or recognize colors linguistically in a certain sequence.

STEWART: Exactly. So in 1969, these two linguists, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, did a survey of 20 different languages that were completely unrelated to each other. And they found that as languages develop differing names for colors, those names always enter the language in the same order. So that order is black, white, red, green and yellow, blue, and then brown.

So if they're going to have only three words for colors, those words will almost always be black, white and red. And then it'll go on the next. If they're going to have four, the fourth one will always be green or yellow, and then blue is number five.

MARTIN: Another important question, which is something we see in our culture all the time. How did it come to be that we associate pink with girls? Why is that a feminine color?

STEWART: Well, it's an interesting question because we tend to feel that that's a really immutable rule that must have been true forever. But, in fact, it's a very relatively recent thing that that has become so ironclad - actually in the '70s. But, earlier, it was a question simply of what goes with the child's complexion. So the rule of thumb was often, oh, if you have brown eyes a baby looks good in pink no matter what their gender is. Blue eyes - blue.

Sometimes there were other rules. So, for example, in Catholic parts of Germany it was the fashion to dress your little girl in blue because it was an homage to the Virgin Mary. And then the boys would be in pink, because that was a watered-down version of a sort of traditionally masculine color, red.

MARTIN: Hmm.

STEWART: So it's flip-flopped a lot and only recently kind of solidified.

MARTIN: I understand you have synesthesia. Is that right?

STEWART: I do.

MARTIN: Can you explain what synesthesia is?

STEWART: Synesthesia is, as I describe it, a harmless brain quirk in which you associate some stimulus with a color. So for me, it's letters and numbers to me always have the same color. So, I don't know, you want to hit me with a letter I can mind with...

MARTIN: Do people do this to you all the time?

STEWART: Very often?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Yeah, friends and family, they're like hey, Letter R, Number 16.

STEWART: Letter R. Yeah.

MARTIN: What about the Number 74?

STEWART: Seventy-four; seven is a sort of pale butter yellow and four is kind of a hay color, kind of a tan. It's a nice color.

MARTIN: And they're always the same? It doesn't change for you?

STEWART: They're always the same. Yeah, a funny story. Synesthesia is something that runs in families. So what we discovered recently, I was visiting with my parents and my brother, and we were all sitting around the pool. And my brother and my mom both did not realize that they had synesthesia. We were talking about the book and my mother just blurts out, you know, as I was describing oh, 74 is this color, my mom says, no, it's this color.

And then my brother had another - you know, he's said, no, I always thought of it as this color. And to both of their surprises it seemed they did have synesthesia. My father, meanwhile, has no idea what we're talking about.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Jude Stewart. Her New book is "Roy G. Biv." She joined us from WBEZ in Chicago.

Jude, thanks so much for talking with us.

STEWART: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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