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Episode
219

The Curiosities of Colour

Dec 14, 2021
Science & Technology
-
30
minutes
The Enlightenment
Art
Romans
Greece
Colonialism
Scientists
The Victorian Era

In this episode, we explore the curious history of colour by looking at the unusual stories behind five colours: red, blue, purple, yellow and white.

We'll cover how colours are created, why certain colours were so expensive, what associations came with different colours, and how colours are used in idioms in English.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Curiosities of Colour.

[00:00:29] This isn’t going to be an attempt to cover the vast and fascinating entire history of colour, but we will explore some of the curiosities associated with colour.

[00:00:41] We’ll explore this through some unusual stories of five different colours, and on our journey we’ll see how our understanding of colour has changed over time, what different colours have been associated with different things, why the use of different colours has changed over time, and we’ll end with some interesting colourful idioms and examples of what different colours mean in English.

[00:01:10] We have a lot to get through, so let’s get started right away.

[00:01:16] Let me start by asking you a question.

[00:01:19] How many colours are there?

[00:01:22] Well, you might think first of the three “primary colours”: red, blue and yellow, and think that every other colour is simply a mixture of these three.

[00:01:26] Or, you might think of the 7 colours of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

[00:01:44] Or you might think of the 11 main colours that children are taught about in school: Black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple, and gray.

[00:01:58] If you are someone who enjoys painting or works with colours, you can no doubt name some more. Turquoise, Amber, Aquamarine, even Claret. And no doubt you could name many more in your mother tongue.

[00:02:15] The reality is that there are millions of colours, and by some definitions there is even an infinite number of different colours.

[00:02:24] Your web browser can display, to be precise 16,777,216 different colours, each identified by a different what’s called HEX code, which is a combination of 6 numbers and letters. 

[00:02:42] The purple-ish colour used on the leonardoenglish.com website is #6c63ff, for example, while the blue-ish colour used on the Guardian is #052961. 

[00:02:58] Creating these colours on a screen is as simple as choosing the alphanumeric code you want.

[00:03:05] And of course you can go to an art shop and buy different paints, mix them together and make different colours yourself.

[00:03:14] Being able to create literally millions of different colours is something we now take for granted. To state the obvious, it used to be a lot harder.

[00:03:25] Going back to the earliest discoveries of prehistoric art, it was clear that people wanted to use different colours, they were just restricted to what was readily available.

[00:03:38] In prehistoric art, this meant relatively dark colours in general.

[00:03:44] You could use mud, earth from the ground to create browns and reds. You could burn wood to create black. If you could find chalk, you could create white and yellow. And reds, especially dark reds, could come from blood.

[00:04:04] For this reason, the majority of prehistoric art tends to use these five colours as a base: black, white, red, yellow and brown.

[00:04:16] As time went on, different societies discovered how to create different types of colour, and we are going to explore the curious history of five of these colours today: red, blue, purple, yellow and white.

[00:04:33] But before we do that, a brief introduction to some of the history of the science of colour.

[00:04:40] We now know that colour comes from light, without light there is no colour.

[00:04:46] Light, however, was originally seen, in the Christian tradition at least, as entirely given by God. 

[00:04:54] The Bible literally has this as its third verse: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light”. 

[00:05:02] So, light was a gift from God, but in the late 17th Century a brilliant young man made a fascinating discovery about this gift, about light.

[00:05:13] The 24-year-old Isaac Newton had been building on ideas about the nature of light developed by Descartes in the early 17th century. 

[00:05:24] Previous to this, people believed that colour was just a mixture of light and darkness. 

[00:05:32] Newton’s most famous development, at least relating to light, was when he used a prism - a glass object - to show that what looked like a white light was actually made up of a wide spectrum, a wide range, of different colours. 

[00:05:51] People had seen this before, but believed that the prism was adding colour to the light.

[00:05:58] Newton’s revolutionary addition was to add another prism behind. 

[00:06:04] The light went through the first prism and split into a spectrum of colours, and then the second prism turned the full spectrum of colours back into white light again.

[00:06:18] Ta-da, it was clear now that the prism didn’t actually add colour to light, the colour actually came from the light itself.

[00:06:29] And ever since then no one viewed colour in quite the same way. 

[00:06:34] Interestingly, Newton first only divided the spectrum into five different colours - red, yellow, green, blue and purple - but then added two more, orange and indigo, because he was a big fan of Pythagoras, and believed that the number seven had special properties. 

[00:06:56] There are seven days of the week, seven natural notes, seven is a prime number, and so on.

[00:07:03] So, Newton added two colours, orange and indigo, and this is why there are seven colours of the rainbow.

[00:07:12] Whether there are really five or seven is immaterial, it doesn’t really matter, the point is that Newton’s discovery showed the full spectrum of colours, and proved that different colours could be created by mixing different ones together.

[00:07:29] Now, to explore the curiosities of colour, we are going to explore some of the history of five colours - not exactly the original five named by Isaac, but five with some interesting stories.

[00:07:43] In each case, I hope to show you that, although our attitudes towards colour may have changed, they always reflect very human underlying emotions and prejudices

[00:07:56] Where shall we start? 

[00:07:58] Red is as good a place as any, and let’s start with an interesting fact about the colour red: we, humans, are one of the few creatures on Earth that can see the colour red. 

[00:08:12] When a matador waves his red flag at a bull in a bullring, the bull doesn’t charge because of the colour that he sees. 

[00:08:22] He charges because of the waving movement of the cloth. 

[00:08:26] From humankind‘s early days, red has been associated with high passions – in particular sexual passion and danger. Men are, reportedly, particularly susceptible to the attraction or lure of red.

[00:08:45] There was actually an experiment conducted by the University of South Brittany in France where waitresses were instructed to wear exactly the same style of t-shirt, only in five different colours: black, white, red, blue, green, and yellow. 

[00:09:06] Interestingly enough, on the days in which the waitresses wore red t-shirts the tips they received from male customers were anywhere from 15 to 26% higher.

[00:09:20] The development of different kinds of reds takes us into the weird world of what’s called sumptuary laws.

[00:09:30] In Europe of the 13th and 14th centuries, laws dictated or told you what sort of clothes and which colours you should wear. 

[00:09:40] Bizarrely this depended on your social class. 

[00:09:44] If you were an ordinary kind of person, say a labourer, you would be expected to wear dark brown clothing. 

[00:09:52] This cloth was made through using a cheap dye which was a sort of clay colour.

[00:10:00] By contrast, the much more expensive and therefore high-class or prestigious bright red or scarlet was the preserve of high-ranking men of the church – bishops and cardinals, for example. 

[00:10:15] Interestingly, the association of bright red with prostitution and so-called red light areas goes back to the Bible and the bright-red coloured beast that the Whore of Babylon, described in the Old Testament Book of Revelations, sits on. 

[00:10:35] Red’s association with high passions is thought to be because of its associations, not only with red blood and red meat, but also with the ripe and red fruit, such as apples, that humankind has been attracted to. 

[00:10:52] And to our final curiosity of red: in almost every country red seems to have been the first colour [other than black and white] to be given a name, with its symbolic appeal often drawn from blood, evoking strength, virility and fertility.

[00:11:13] Now, moving on to what is considered to be the most popular colour in the world: blue.

[00:11:20] Interestingly enough, the ancient Greeks, Chinese, Japanese and Hebrews did not have a name for blue and considered it to be a different type of green. 

[00:11:32] Even today several languages, including, I believe, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and Kurdish don’t make a clear distinction between blue and green. 

[00:11:42] To many of you this might seem strange, as blue is all around us.

[00:11:49] Blue is one of the most dominant colours in the natural world.

[00:11:53] Look up to the sky and you will see a blue colour.

[00:11:57] Look to the seas and oceans and you will also find a large wall of blue.

[00:12:03] And looking down at our planet from space, the vast majority of it looks blue.

[00:12:09] Of course, as we are told as children, the sky isn’t actually blue - it appears blue because of the way in which the sun’s light is scattered when it hits the atmosphere, and that’s why the sky turns red or orange at sunrise or sunset. 

[00:12:27] And similarly, the sea isn’t “blue” either - it simply appears blue because the water absorbs the red light part of the spectrum.

[00:12:37] In any case, in the imagination of most cultures, the link is there: the sky and the seas are blue. 

[00:12:46] There’s the sense that blue is a powerful force of nature, and that’s why it’s used in so many logos and flags to put the message across of something fundamental - whether it’s the beloved British National Health Service or the flag of the European Union.

[00:13:07] But blue has not always been so sought after or desirable

[00:13:12] Not only did the Romans associate blue with barbarism because the Celtic soldiers of Britain dyed their bodies blue, but they also associated blue with mourning and misfortune

[00:13:27] Blue‘s rise to prominence is associated with the rare and precious rock, lapis lazuli, from which you could create the powerful, intense deep blue colour of ultramarine.

[00:13:42] Prior to the 18th century, this magical stone, this lapis lazuli came from a single source in the mountains of Afghanistan. 

[00:13:52] The deep blue colour of the lapis lazuli stone has appealed to people since the dawn of time, and there’s evidence of it being used in jewellery going back to the 7th century BC, and it’s even used on the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

[00:14:12] It would be mined, polished, and used as jewellery, but the stone would normally be left intact.

[00:14:20] Starting in the medieval era, it was increasingly exported to Europe, where it would be ground into a powder and turned into the colour ultramarine, meaning “beyond the sea”.

[00:14:35] This was a very complicated process though.

[00:14:38] First the mineral itself had to be mined in Afghanistan, then it needed to be shipped all the way to Europe, then it would be ground down into a powder and turned into a paint, a process which involved 50 different stages.

[00:14:55] And after all of this, 1 kilogram of the mineral lapis lazuli would only get you about 30g of paint.

[00:15:04] So, as you might imagine, it was incredibly expensive, more expensive than gold.

[00:15:11] For this reason it was typically reserved for particularly important parts of a painting, the dress of the Virgin Mary, for example, and was associated with extreme wealth and luxury

[00:15:26] Now, moving on, purple, a mixture of red and blue, is our next colour. 

[00:15:33] Glancing at your phone, you will note that varieties of purple are popular with the branding of companies. 

[00:15:41] The Leonardo English logo is purple - now, if you’re thinking this is because of some deep strategic research or the product of extensive focus groups, I’m sorry to disappoint you. It’s only because since I was a little boy I’ve always loved the colour purple.

[00:16:00] Like blue, it is a rare thing in nature - it’s not an easy colour to create.

[00:16:07] The story of how to create the colour purple has its own interesting myth, and it centres around a Greek hero and a dog.

[00:16:17] According to the legend, the dog belonging to Hercules, the Greek hero, returned one day to his master with a purple stain around his mouth.

[00:16:30] Hercules realised that the dog had been eating sea snails, he went to investigate, and found that a particular type of sea snail gave off a sort of purple dye.

[00:16:44] This tale might well be a myth, but for thousands of years the only way to make the particularly bright and powerful purple called Tyrian Purple was by using sea snails, sea snails that were native to Tyre, a city in modern-day Lebanon.

[00:17:05] Each of these small creatures contained one or two drops of purple juice, and you would need 12,000 to create just one gramme of purple dye.

[00:17:18] The process of creating this purple dye was long, expensive, and very smelly.

[00:17:25] After gathering your tens of thousands of snails you would need to crush them, ensuring that you have plenty of their natural juices to keep the mixture moist, or wet. 

[00:17:38] Then you would simmer or gently boil and ferment this mixture in urine for up to ten days. 

[00:17:47] The smell given off by this process was said to be beyond disgusting, completely foul, horrible. 

[00:17:56] As you can imagine, the resulting dye was extremely valuable – double the worth of gold at one point - and much sought after

[00:18:06] In terms of hours worked, an ordinary labourer would need to work for 24 years in order to buy just a small quantity of this precious stuff. 

[00:18:18] Unsurprisingly, this dye was only affordable for those at the very top of society.

[00:18:25] Reportedly it was the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra’s favourite colour, and it’s from Cleopatra that it became the favourite colour of Roman emperors. 

[00:18:36] When Julius Caesar returned to Rome in 47 BC, having become Cleopatra’s lover, he introduced the purple toga to Rome, and citizens of a certain class were allowed to have a purple stripe on their toga.

[00:18:52] But only one man was allowed to wear the full purple toga - the Big Cheese or big boss himself, Julius Caesar. 

[00:19:01] And for centuries, purple remained a colour associated with power and privilege, due to the high cost of production.

[00:19:11] It was only in the 19th century that a synthetic way to produce purple was discovered.

[00:19:18] This happened when a young Londoner, eighteen year old William Perkins, who was trying to create a cure for malaria from coal tar accidentally discovered a synthetic purple dye in 1856. 

[00:19:35] The factory he subsequently set up made him rich and created his own purple colour, mauve. 

[00:19:43] This colour became widely used in Victorian London – in everything from postage stamps to the work of painters. 

[00:19:52] You will, for example, find plenty of this mauve, this purple colour, in the paintings of London done by Claude Monet. 

[00:20:01] It is an intriguing curiosity that the popular image of late Victorian or 19th Century London, which is of a black and white world, is in fact a misrepresentation of what Victorian London really looked like: there would have been plenty of purple, or mauve, thanks to William Perkins‘s accidental discovery. 

[00:20:26] Now, onto our penultimate colour, our second-last colour, yellow.

[00:20:32] Yellow is the most visible colour on the spectrum - it’s the easiest one to see, and is therefore the colour most commonly used to attract people‘s attention - think of the yellow, “hi-vis” jackets or gilets that everyone from school children on school trips to road workers use. 

[00:20:53] It’s also the colour that most societies believed the sun to be. 

[00:20:58] Like the sky or sea, the sun isn’t actually one colour in particular. 

[00:21:04] It might appear yellow at certain times of the day, or red or orange at others, but this is only because of how its light is scattered by the Earth’s atmosphere.

[00:21:15] If you see photos of the sun from space, it looks white, because it’s actually emitting white light.

[00:21:24] In any case, yellow is the colour most commonly associated with the sun.

[00:21:29] This and yellow‘s association with that most precious of metals, gold, gives yellow such a strong association in many cultures with wealth, good fortune and the divine

[00:21:44] For example, in India, the bright yellow spice, turmeric, is thrown over couples when they are newly married – or newlyweds

[00:21:54] Not so appetising or promising is yellow‘s link with decay, rottenness and the unwanted

[00:22:03] These associations probably go back both to the yellowish colour of urine and also, more poetically, to the yellow foliage or leaves of autumn, much used by Shakespeare as an emblem of ageing

[00:22:19] Macbeth, for example, famously says “I have lived long enough. My way of life/Is fall'n into the sere — the yellow leaf ”. 

[00:22:29] Sere, here means dry, all dried up. So Macbeth is saying that he is like a yellow leaf, dried up in the autumn.

[00:22:40] The most alarming gruesome and abhorrent use of yellow is as a symbol of racial oppression and in particular of anti-semitism. 

[00:22:52] Racist legislation throughout the centuries has forced Jews to identify themselves through yellow. 

[00:23:00] Going all the way back to the 13th century, Jews living in various European states, from modern day Germany to Spain, England to Italy, have been forced to identify themselves by wearing yellow stars, then yellow large hats in the 16th century, and of course in Nazi Germany the yellow star again. 

[00:23:24] And you don’t need me to remind you of the tragic consequences of that.

[00:23:29] Our final colour, white, will, alas, offer little chance for a heartening conclusion to our curious wander through the world of colour, as white, like yellow, has its fair share of links with racism. 

[00:23:45] It is difficult to trace all the origins of these links, but here are a few. 

[00:23:51] It has always been difficult and expensive to process materials in order for them to appear white. Therefore white has long been connected in people‘s minds with money and power. 

[00:24:05] In Ancient Egypt and Rome white was the colour of the clothes worn by priests and priestesses, and indeed even today white is the colour worn by senior religious leaders such as the pope.

[00:24:21] In much of European history only the very wealthy could afford to keep their clothes white because they had the money to employ many servants who would do all that time-consuming washing work for them. 

[00:24:35] This association of white with quality was even evident in the way that in the 1930s white bread became the preferred choice in the UK and USA over its brown, wholemeal [and incidentally much healthier] rival, which was associated with the less affluent, the less rich.

[00:24:58] Fast forward to our 21st-century world. 

[00:25:03] Now, on trend designers have taken the age-old association of white with sexual purity and applied it more broadly in order to make their products attractive. 

[00:25:15] Consider, for example, the use of white in the design of Apple‘s high end products. 

[00:25:23] We can perhaps even trace this back to the history of ancient Greece and Rome. 

[00:25:28] When in the 16th century the idea of the Classical, grand building was given new life by the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, the powerful Classical concept of grandeur in building was tied in with the white colour of the buildings’ material - often Italian and always white marble

[00:25:51] It was only in the mid-19th century that researchers realised that the classical statues and buildings of ancient Greece and Rome had in fact been usually brightly painted, they weren’t white at all. 

[00:26:06] By that time, however, European colonialism and in particular British colonialism was spreading into Africa and India. 

[00:26:16] In the same way that Victorian buildings were built on Classical models, so these imperialists saw themselves as built or fashioned in the same mould as the creators of Ancient Greece and Rome. 

[00:26:31] Somehow, bizarre as it might seem, the link between the white, sparkling marble of ancient statues and buildings and the supposed superiority of white races seems to have been made. 

[00:26:45] This is even more absurd when one stops to consider that the “white” of Caucasian people is, as the English novelist E.M. Forster described it in the 1920s, really a kind of “pinko-grey”, not very white at all.

[00:27:03] Now, when it comes to colours in English, like in many languages, cultural and sociological beliefs about the properties of colour have made their way into language, so let’s explore some of these.

[00:27:18] Firstly, you can be caught “red handed”, meaning you are caught in the middle of something. For example, if you find your child sitting next to a packet of chocolate biscuits with chocolate all around their mouth, you might say you caught them red handed.

[00:27:36] If something comes “out of the blue”, it comes from nowhere, it is very unexpected. Your friend might tell you that a job opportunity came completely out of the blue.

[00:27:48] If someone is going through a “purple patch”, they are going through a period of good luck or success.

[00:27:56] If someone has a “yellow streak”, on the other hand, it means that they have a tendency to be cowardly, a tendency to be afraid. For example, you could say that your friend is a good person but he has a bit of a yellow streak.

[00:28:12] And if you tell a “white” lie, it’s an unimportant lie, an untruth that doesn’t really matter. For example, you might tell your child that they can go on a space rocket when they’re older, even if it might not technically be true.

[00:28:30] And there are plenty of idioms that refer to colours in general.

[00:28:34] If you show someone your true colours, you show them your true character.

[00:28:40] If you pass an exam with “flying” colours, you do an excellent job. 

[00:28:46] If you add colour to something, it means to describe it in greater detail.

[00:28:53] So, there we have it, colour, and some of the curiosities therein.

[00:28:59] It’s pretty amazing to think about how our perception of colour has changed over time, how we have assigned different meanings to colour, that different colours have different qualities and associations. 

[00:29:14] And even more amazing to think that colour is something that, in the literal sense at least, doesn’t actually exist at all.

[00:29:25] OK then that is it for today’s episode on The Curiosities of Colour. 

[00:29:31] We have only just scratched the surface of this fascinating topic, but I hope that it has added some colour to the curious world of colour.

[00:29:41] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:29:44] What are some associations of different colours in your language and culture? 

[00:29:50] Are these the same or different to some of the ones I’ve mentioned in English?

[00:29:54] And how is colour used in your mother tongue? I’m sure there are some brilliant idioms, and I would love to know what they are.

[00:30:03] So, let’s get this discussion started. The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:30:11] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:30:17] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.



[END OF EPISODE]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Curiosities of Colour.

[00:00:29] This isn’t going to be an attempt to cover the vast and fascinating entire history of colour, but we will explore some of the curiosities associated with colour.

[00:00:41] We’ll explore this through some unusual stories of five different colours, and on our journey we’ll see how our understanding of colour has changed over time, what different colours have been associated with different things, why the use of different colours has changed over time, and we’ll end with some interesting colourful idioms and examples of what different colours mean in English.

[00:01:10] We have a lot to get through, so let’s get started right away.

[00:01:16] Let me start by asking you a question.

[00:01:19] How many colours are there?

[00:01:22] Well, you might think first of the three “primary colours”: red, blue and yellow, and think that every other colour is simply a mixture of these three.

[00:01:26] Or, you might think of the 7 colours of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

[00:01:44] Or you might think of the 11 main colours that children are taught about in school: Black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple, and gray.

[00:01:58] If you are someone who enjoys painting or works with colours, you can no doubt name some more. Turquoise, Amber, Aquamarine, even Claret. And no doubt you could name many more in your mother tongue.

[00:02:15] The reality is that there are millions of colours, and by some definitions there is even an infinite number of different colours.

[00:02:24] Your web browser can display, to be precise 16,777,216 different colours, each identified by a different what’s called HEX code, which is a combination of 6 numbers and letters. 

[00:02:42] The purple-ish colour used on the leonardoenglish.com website is #6c63ff, for example, while the blue-ish colour used on the Guardian is #052961. 

[00:02:58] Creating these colours on a screen is as simple as choosing the alphanumeric code you want.

[00:03:05] And of course you can go to an art shop and buy different paints, mix them together and make different colours yourself.

[00:03:14] Being able to create literally millions of different colours is something we now take for granted. To state the obvious, it used to be a lot harder.

[00:03:25] Going back to the earliest discoveries of prehistoric art, it was clear that people wanted to use different colours, they were just restricted to what was readily available.

[00:03:38] In prehistoric art, this meant relatively dark colours in general.

[00:03:44] You could use mud, earth from the ground to create browns and reds. You could burn wood to create black. If you could find chalk, you could create white and yellow. And reds, especially dark reds, could come from blood.

[00:04:04] For this reason, the majority of prehistoric art tends to use these five colours as a base: black, white, red, yellow and brown.

[00:04:16] As time went on, different societies discovered how to create different types of colour, and we are going to explore the curious history of five of these colours today: red, blue, purple, yellow and white.

[00:04:33] But before we do that, a brief introduction to some of the history of the science of colour.

[00:04:40] We now know that colour comes from light, without light there is no colour.

[00:04:46] Light, however, was originally seen, in the Christian tradition at least, as entirely given by God. 

[00:04:54] The Bible literally has this as its third verse: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light”. 

[00:05:02] So, light was a gift from God, but in the late 17th Century a brilliant young man made a fascinating discovery about this gift, about light.

[00:05:13] The 24-year-old Isaac Newton had been building on ideas about the nature of light developed by Descartes in the early 17th century. 

[00:05:24] Previous to this, people believed that colour was just a mixture of light and darkness. 

[00:05:32] Newton’s most famous development, at least relating to light, was when he used a prism - a glass object - to show that what looked like a white light was actually made up of a wide spectrum, a wide range, of different colours. 

[00:05:51] People had seen this before, but believed that the prism was adding colour to the light.

[00:05:58] Newton’s revolutionary addition was to add another prism behind. 

[00:06:04] The light went through the first prism and split into a spectrum of colours, and then the second prism turned the full spectrum of colours back into white light again.

[00:06:18] Ta-da, it was clear now that the prism didn’t actually add colour to light, the colour actually came from the light itself.

[00:06:29] And ever since then no one viewed colour in quite the same way. 

[00:06:34] Interestingly, Newton first only divided the spectrum into five different colours - red, yellow, green, blue and purple - but then added two more, orange and indigo, because he was a big fan of Pythagoras, and believed that the number seven had special properties. 

[00:06:56] There are seven days of the week, seven natural notes, seven is a prime number, and so on.

[00:07:03] So, Newton added two colours, orange and indigo, and this is why there are seven colours of the rainbow.

[00:07:12] Whether there are really five or seven is immaterial, it doesn’t really matter, the point is that Newton’s discovery showed the full spectrum of colours, and proved that different colours could be created by mixing different ones together.

[00:07:29] Now, to explore the curiosities of colour, we are going to explore some of the history of five colours - not exactly the original five named by Isaac, but five with some interesting stories.

[00:07:43] In each case, I hope to show you that, although our attitudes towards colour may have changed, they always reflect very human underlying emotions and prejudices

[00:07:56] Where shall we start? 

[00:07:58] Red is as good a place as any, and let’s start with an interesting fact about the colour red: we, humans, are one of the few creatures on Earth that can see the colour red. 

[00:08:12] When a matador waves his red flag at a bull in a bullring, the bull doesn’t charge because of the colour that he sees. 

[00:08:22] He charges because of the waving movement of the cloth. 

[00:08:26] From humankind‘s early days, red has been associated with high passions – in particular sexual passion and danger. Men are, reportedly, particularly susceptible to the attraction or lure of red.

[00:08:45] There was actually an experiment conducted by the University of South Brittany in France where waitresses were instructed to wear exactly the same style of t-shirt, only in five different colours: black, white, red, blue, green, and yellow. 

[00:09:06] Interestingly enough, on the days in which the waitresses wore red t-shirts the tips they received from male customers were anywhere from 15 to 26% higher.

[00:09:20] The development of different kinds of reds takes us into the weird world of what’s called sumptuary laws.

[00:09:30] In Europe of the 13th and 14th centuries, laws dictated or told you what sort of clothes and which colours you should wear. 

[00:09:40] Bizarrely this depended on your social class. 

[00:09:44] If you were an ordinary kind of person, say a labourer, you would be expected to wear dark brown clothing. 

[00:09:52] This cloth was made through using a cheap dye which was a sort of clay colour.

[00:10:00] By contrast, the much more expensive and therefore high-class or prestigious bright red or scarlet was the preserve of high-ranking men of the church – bishops and cardinals, for example. 

[00:10:15] Interestingly, the association of bright red with prostitution and so-called red light areas goes back to the Bible and the bright-red coloured beast that the Whore of Babylon, described in the Old Testament Book of Revelations, sits on. 

[00:10:35] Red’s association with high passions is thought to be because of its associations, not only with red blood and red meat, but also with the ripe and red fruit, such as apples, that humankind has been attracted to. 

[00:10:52] And to our final curiosity of red: in almost every country red seems to have been the first colour [other than black and white] to be given a name, with its symbolic appeal often drawn from blood, evoking strength, virility and fertility.

[00:11:13] Now, moving on to what is considered to be the most popular colour in the world: blue.

[00:11:20] Interestingly enough, the ancient Greeks, Chinese, Japanese and Hebrews did not have a name for blue and considered it to be a different type of green. 

[00:11:32] Even today several languages, including, I believe, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and Kurdish don’t make a clear distinction between blue and green. 

[00:11:42] To many of you this might seem strange, as blue is all around us.

[00:11:49] Blue is one of the most dominant colours in the natural world.

[00:11:53] Look up to the sky and you will see a blue colour.

[00:11:57] Look to the seas and oceans and you will also find a large wall of blue.

[00:12:03] And looking down at our planet from space, the vast majority of it looks blue.

[00:12:09] Of course, as we are told as children, the sky isn’t actually blue - it appears blue because of the way in which the sun’s light is scattered when it hits the atmosphere, and that’s why the sky turns red or orange at sunrise or sunset. 

[00:12:27] And similarly, the sea isn’t “blue” either - it simply appears blue because the water absorbs the red light part of the spectrum.

[00:12:37] In any case, in the imagination of most cultures, the link is there: the sky and the seas are blue. 

[00:12:46] There’s the sense that blue is a powerful force of nature, and that’s why it’s used in so many logos and flags to put the message across of something fundamental - whether it’s the beloved British National Health Service or the flag of the European Union.

[00:13:07] But blue has not always been so sought after or desirable

[00:13:12] Not only did the Romans associate blue with barbarism because the Celtic soldiers of Britain dyed their bodies blue, but they also associated blue with mourning and misfortune

[00:13:27] Blue‘s rise to prominence is associated with the rare and precious rock, lapis lazuli, from which you could create the powerful, intense deep blue colour of ultramarine.

[00:13:42] Prior to the 18th century, this magical stone, this lapis lazuli came from a single source in the mountains of Afghanistan. 

[00:13:52] The deep blue colour of the lapis lazuli stone has appealed to people since the dawn of time, and there’s evidence of it being used in jewellery going back to the 7th century BC, and it’s even used on the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

[00:14:12] It would be mined, polished, and used as jewellery, but the stone would normally be left intact.

[00:14:20] Starting in the medieval era, it was increasingly exported to Europe, where it would be ground into a powder and turned into the colour ultramarine, meaning “beyond the sea”.

[00:14:35] This was a very complicated process though.

[00:14:38] First the mineral itself had to be mined in Afghanistan, then it needed to be shipped all the way to Europe, then it would be ground down into a powder and turned into a paint, a process which involved 50 different stages.

[00:14:55] And after all of this, 1 kilogram of the mineral lapis lazuli would only get you about 30g of paint.

[00:15:04] So, as you might imagine, it was incredibly expensive, more expensive than gold.

[00:15:11] For this reason it was typically reserved for particularly important parts of a painting, the dress of the Virgin Mary, for example, and was associated with extreme wealth and luxury

[00:15:26] Now, moving on, purple, a mixture of red and blue, is our next colour. 

[00:15:33] Glancing at your phone, you will note that varieties of purple are popular with the branding of companies. 

[00:15:41] The Leonardo English logo is purple - now, if you’re thinking this is because of some deep strategic research or the product of extensive focus groups, I’m sorry to disappoint you. It’s only because since I was a little boy I’ve always loved the colour purple.

[00:16:00] Like blue, it is a rare thing in nature - it’s not an easy colour to create.

[00:16:07] The story of how to create the colour purple has its own interesting myth, and it centres around a Greek hero and a dog.

[00:16:17] According to the legend, the dog belonging to Hercules, the Greek hero, returned one day to his master with a purple stain around his mouth.

[00:16:30] Hercules realised that the dog had been eating sea snails, he went to investigate, and found that a particular type of sea snail gave off a sort of purple dye.

[00:16:44] This tale might well be a myth, but for thousands of years the only way to make the particularly bright and powerful purple called Tyrian Purple was by using sea snails, sea snails that were native to Tyre, a city in modern-day Lebanon.

[00:17:05] Each of these small creatures contained one or two drops of purple juice, and you would need 12,000 to create just one gramme of purple dye.

[00:17:18] The process of creating this purple dye was long, expensive, and very smelly.

[00:17:25] After gathering your tens of thousands of snails you would need to crush them, ensuring that you have plenty of their natural juices to keep the mixture moist, or wet. 

[00:17:38] Then you would simmer or gently boil and ferment this mixture in urine for up to ten days. 

[00:17:47] The smell given off by this process was said to be beyond disgusting, completely foul, horrible. 

[00:17:56] As you can imagine, the resulting dye was extremely valuable – double the worth of gold at one point - and much sought after

[00:18:06] In terms of hours worked, an ordinary labourer would need to work for 24 years in order to buy just a small quantity of this precious stuff. 

[00:18:18] Unsurprisingly, this dye was only affordable for those at the very top of society.

[00:18:25] Reportedly it was the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra’s favourite colour, and it’s from Cleopatra that it became the favourite colour of Roman emperors. 

[00:18:36] When Julius Caesar returned to Rome in 47 BC, having become Cleopatra’s lover, he introduced the purple toga to Rome, and citizens of a certain class were allowed to have a purple stripe on their toga.

[00:18:52] But only one man was allowed to wear the full purple toga - the Big Cheese or big boss himself, Julius Caesar. 

[00:19:01] And for centuries, purple remained a colour associated with power and privilege, due to the high cost of production.

[00:19:11] It was only in the 19th century that a synthetic way to produce purple was discovered.

[00:19:18] This happened when a young Londoner, eighteen year old William Perkins, who was trying to create a cure for malaria from coal tar accidentally discovered a synthetic purple dye in 1856. 

[00:19:35] The factory he subsequently set up made him rich and created his own purple colour, mauve. 

[00:19:43] This colour became widely used in Victorian London – in everything from postage stamps to the work of painters. 

[00:19:52] You will, for example, find plenty of this mauve, this purple colour, in the paintings of London done by Claude Monet. 

[00:20:01] It is an intriguing curiosity that the popular image of late Victorian or 19th Century London, which is of a black and white world, is in fact a misrepresentation of what Victorian London really looked like: there would have been plenty of purple, or mauve, thanks to William Perkins‘s accidental discovery. 

[00:20:26] Now, onto our penultimate colour, our second-last colour, yellow.

[00:20:32] Yellow is the most visible colour on the spectrum - it’s the easiest one to see, and is therefore the colour most commonly used to attract people‘s attention - think of the yellow, “hi-vis” jackets or gilets that everyone from school children on school trips to road workers use. 

[00:20:53] It’s also the colour that most societies believed the sun to be. 

[00:20:58] Like the sky or sea, the sun isn’t actually one colour in particular. 

[00:21:04] It might appear yellow at certain times of the day, or red or orange at others, but this is only because of how its light is scattered by the Earth’s atmosphere.

[00:21:15] If you see photos of the sun from space, it looks white, because it’s actually emitting white light.

[00:21:24] In any case, yellow is the colour most commonly associated with the sun.

[00:21:29] This and yellow‘s association with that most precious of metals, gold, gives yellow such a strong association in many cultures with wealth, good fortune and the divine

[00:21:44] For example, in India, the bright yellow spice, turmeric, is thrown over couples when they are newly married – or newlyweds

[00:21:54] Not so appetising or promising is yellow‘s link with decay, rottenness and the unwanted

[00:22:03] These associations probably go back both to the yellowish colour of urine and also, more poetically, to the yellow foliage or leaves of autumn, much used by Shakespeare as an emblem of ageing

[00:22:19] Macbeth, for example, famously says “I have lived long enough. My way of life/Is fall'n into the sere — the yellow leaf ”. 

[00:22:29] Sere, here means dry, all dried up. So Macbeth is saying that he is like a yellow leaf, dried up in the autumn.

[00:22:40] The most alarming gruesome and abhorrent use of yellow is as a symbol of racial oppression and in particular of anti-semitism. 

[00:22:52] Racist legislation throughout the centuries has forced Jews to identify themselves through yellow. 

[00:23:00] Going all the way back to the 13th century, Jews living in various European states, from modern day Germany to Spain, England to Italy, have been forced to identify themselves by wearing yellow stars, then yellow large hats in the 16th century, and of course in Nazi Germany the yellow star again. 

[00:23:24] And you don’t need me to remind you of the tragic consequences of that.

[00:23:29] Our final colour, white, will, alas, offer little chance for a heartening conclusion to our curious wander through the world of colour, as white, like yellow, has its fair share of links with racism. 

[00:23:45] It is difficult to trace all the origins of these links, but here are a few. 

[00:23:51] It has always been difficult and expensive to process materials in order for them to appear white. Therefore white has long been connected in people‘s minds with money and power. 

[00:24:05] In Ancient Egypt and Rome white was the colour of the clothes worn by priests and priestesses, and indeed even today white is the colour worn by senior religious leaders such as the pope.

[00:24:21] In much of European history only the very wealthy could afford to keep their clothes white because they had the money to employ many servants who would do all that time-consuming washing work for them. 

[00:24:35] This association of white with quality was even evident in the way that in the 1930s white bread became the preferred choice in the UK and USA over its brown, wholemeal [and incidentally much healthier] rival, which was associated with the less affluent, the less rich.

[00:24:58] Fast forward to our 21st-century world. 

[00:25:03] Now, on trend designers have taken the age-old association of white with sexual purity and applied it more broadly in order to make their products attractive. 

[00:25:15] Consider, for example, the use of white in the design of Apple‘s high end products. 

[00:25:23] We can perhaps even trace this back to the history of ancient Greece and Rome. 

[00:25:28] When in the 16th century the idea of the Classical, grand building was given new life by the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, the powerful Classical concept of grandeur in building was tied in with the white colour of the buildings’ material - often Italian and always white marble

[00:25:51] It was only in the mid-19th century that researchers realised that the classical statues and buildings of ancient Greece and Rome had in fact been usually brightly painted, they weren’t white at all. 

[00:26:06] By that time, however, European colonialism and in particular British colonialism was spreading into Africa and India. 

[00:26:16] In the same way that Victorian buildings were built on Classical models, so these imperialists saw themselves as built or fashioned in the same mould as the creators of Ancient Greece and Rome. 

[00:26:31] Somehow, bizarre as it might seem, the link between the white, sparkling marble of ancient statues and buildings and the supposed superiority of white races seems to have been made. 

[00:26:45] This is even more absurd when one stops to consider that the “white” of Caucasian people is, as the English novelist E.M. Forster described it in the 1920s, really a kind of “pinko-grey”, not very white at all.

[00:27:03] Now, when it comes to colours in English, like in many languages, cultural and sociological beliefs about the properties of colour have made their way into language, so let’s explore some of these.

[00:27:18] Firstly, you can be caught “red handed”, meaning you are caught in the middle of something. For example, if you find your child sitting next to a packet of chocolate biscuits with chocolate all around their mouth, you might say you caught them red handed.

[00:27:36] If something comes “out of the blue”, it comes from nowhere, it is very unexpected. Your friend might tell you that a job opportunity came completely out of the blue.

[00:27:48] If someone is going through a “purple patch”, they are going through a period of good luck or success.

[00:27:56] If someone has a “yellow streak”, on the other hand, it means that they have a tendency to be cowardly, a tendency to be afraid. For example, you could say that your friend is a good person but he has a bit of a yellow streak.

[00:28:12] And if you tell a “white” lie, it’s an unimportant lie, an untruth that doesn’t really matter. For example, you might tell your child that they can go on a space rocket when they’re older, even if it might not technically be true.

[00:28:30] And there are plenty of idioms that refer to colours in general.

[00:28:34] If you show someone your true colours, you show them your true character.

[00:28:40] If you pass an exam with “flying” colours, you do an excellent job. 

[00:28:46] If you add colour to something, it means to describe it in greater detail.

[00:28:53] So, there we have it, colour, and some of the curiosities therein.

[00:28:59] It’s pretty amazing to think about how our perception of colour has changed over time, how we have assigned different meanings to colour, that different colours have different qualities and associations. 

[00:29:14] And even more amazing to think that colour is something that, in the literal sense at least, doesn’t actually exist at all.

[00:29:25] OK then that is it for today’s episode on The Curiosities of Colour. 

[00:29:31] We have only just scratched the surface of this fascinating topic, but I hope that it has added some colour to the curious world of colour.

[00:29:41] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:29:44] What are some associations of different colours in your language and culture? 

[00:29:50] Are these the same or different to some of the ones I’ve mentioned in English?

[00:29:54] And how is colour used in your mother tongue? I’m sure there are some brilliant idioms, and I would love to know what they are.

[00:30:03] So, let’s get this discussion started. The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:30:11] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:30:17] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.



[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Curiosities of Colour.

[00:00:29] This isn’t going to be an attempt to cover the vast and fascinating entire history of colour, but we will explore some of the curiosities associated with colour.

[00:00:41] We’ll explore this through some unusual stories of five different colours, and on our journey we’ll see how our understanding of colour has changed over time, what different colours have been associated with different things, why the use of different colours has changed over time, and we’ll end with some interesting colourful idioms and examples of what different colours mean in English.

[00:01:10] We have a lot to get through, so let’s get started right away.

[00:01:16] Let me start by asking you a question.

[00:01:19] How many colours are there?

[00:01:22] Well, you might think first of the three “primary colours”: red, blue and yellow, and think that every other colour is simply a mixture of these three.

[00:01:26] Or, you might think of the 7 colours of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

[00:01:44] Or you might think of the 11 main colours that children are taught about in school: Black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple, and gray.

[00:01:58] If you are someone who enjoys painting or works with colours, you can no doubt name some more. Turquoise, Amber, Aquamarine, even Claret. And no doubt you could name many more in your mother tongue.

[00:02:15] The reality is that there are millions of colours, and by some definitions there is even an infinite number of different colours.

[00:02:24] Your web browser can display, to be precise 16,777,216 different colours, each identified by a different what’s called HEX code, which is a combination of 6 numbers and letters. 

[00:02:42] The purple-ish colour used on the leonardoenglish.com website is #6c63ff, for example, while the blue-ish colour used on the Guardian is #052961. 

[00:02:58] Creating these colours on a screen is as simple as choosing the alphanumeric code you want.

[00:03:05] And of course you can go to an art shop and buy different paints, mix them together and make different colours yourself.

[00:03:14] Being able to create literally millions of different colours is something we now take for granted. To state the obvious, it used to be a lot harder.

[00:03:25] Going back to the earliest discoveries of prehistoric art, it was clear that people wanted to use different colours, they were just restricted to what was readily available.

[00:03:38] In prehistoric art, this meant relatively dark colours in general.

[00:03:44] You could use mud, earth from the ground to create browns and reds. You could burn wood to create black. If you could find chalk, you could create white and yellow. And reds, especially dark reds, could come from blood.

[00:04:04] For this reason, the majority of prehistoric art tends to use these five colours as a base: black, white, red, yellow and brown.

[00:04:16] As time went on, different societies discovered how to create different types of colour, and we are going to explore the curious history of five of these colours today: red, blue, purple, yellow and white.

[00:04:33] But before we do that, a brief introduction to some of the history of the science of colour.

[00:04:40] We now know that colour comes from light, without light there is no colour.

[00:04:46] Light, however, was originally seen, in the Christian tradition at least, as entirely given by God. 

[00:04:54] The Bible literally has this as its third verse: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light”. 

[00:05:02] So, light was a gift from God, but in the late 17th Century a brilliant young man made a fascinating discovery about this gift, about light.

[00:05:13] The 24-year-old Isaac Newton had been building on ideas about the nature of light developed by Descartes in the early 17th century. 

[00:05:24] Previous to this, people believed that colour was just a mixture of light and darkness. 

[00:05:32] Newton’s most famous development, at least relating to light, was when he used a prism - a glass object - to show that what looked like a white light was actually made up of a wide spectrum, a wide range, of different colours. 

[00:05:51] People had seen this before, but believed that the prism was adding colour to the light.

[00:05:58] Newton’s revolutionary addition was to add another prism behind. 

[00:06:04] The light went through the first prism and split into a spectrum of colours, and then the second prism turned the full spectrum of colours back into white light again.

[00:06:18] Ta-da, it was clear now that the prism didn’t actually add colour to light, the colour actually came from the light itself.

[00:06:29] And ever since then no one viewed colour in quite the same way. 

[00:06:34] Interestingly, Newton first only divided the spectrum into five different colours - red, yellow, green, blue and purple - but then added two more, orange and indigo, because he was a big fan of Pythagoras, and believed that the number seven had special properties. 

[00:06:56] There are seven days of the week, seven natural notes, seven is a prime number, and so on.

[00:07:03] So, Newton added two colours, orange and indigo, and this is why there are seven colours of the rainbow.

[00:07:12] Whether there are really five or seven is immaterial, it doesn’t really matter, the point is that Newton’s discovery showed the full spectrum of colours, and proved that different colours could be created by mixing different ones together.

[00:07:29] Now, to explore the curiosities of colour, we are going to explore some of the history of five colours - not exactly the original five named by Isaac, but five with some interesting stories.

[00:07:43] In each case, I hope to show you that, although our attitudes towards colour may have changed, they always reflect very human underlying emotions and prejudices

[00:07:56] Where shall we start? 

[00:07:58] Red is as good a place as any, and let’s start with an interesting fact about the colour red: we, humans, are one of the few creatures on Earth that can see the colour red. 

[00:08:12] When a matador waves his red flag at a bull in a bullring, the bull doesn’t charge because of the colour that he sees. 

[00:08:22] He charges because of the waving movement of the cloth. 

[00:08:26] From humankind‘s early days, red has been associated with high passions – in particular sexual passion and danger. Men are, reportedly, particularly susceptible to the attraction or lure of red.

[00:08:45] There was actually an experiment conducted by the University of South Brittany in France where waitresses were instructed to wear exactly the same style of t-shirt, only in five different colours: black, white, red, blue, green, and yellow. 

[00:09:06] Interestingly enough, on the days in which the waitresses wore red t-shirts the tips they received from male customers were anywhere from 15 to 26% higher.

[00:09:20] The development of different kinds of reds takes us into the weird world of what’s called sumptuary laws.

[00:09:30] In Europe of the 13th and 14th centuries, laws dictated or told you what sort of clothes and which colours you should wear. 

[00:09:40] Bizarrely this depended on your social class. 

[00:09:44] If you were an ordinary kind of person, say a labourer, you would be expected to wear dark brown clothing. 

[00:09:52] This cloth was made through using a cheap dye which was a sort of clay colour.

[00:10:00] By contrast, the much more expensive and therefore high-class or prestigious bright red or scarlet was the preserve of high-ranking men of the church – bishops and cardinals, for example. 

[00:10:15] Interestingly, the association of bright red with prostitution and so-called red light areas goes back to the Bible and the bright-red coloured beast that the Whore of Babylon, described in the Old Testament Book of Revelations, sits on. 

[00:10:35] Red’s association with high passions is thought to be because of its associations, not only with red blood and red meat, but also with the ripe and red fruit, such as apples, that humankind has been attracted to. 

[00:10:52] And to our final curiosity of red: in almost every country red seems to have been the first colour [other than black and white] to be given a name, with its symbolic appeal often drawn from blood, evoking strength, virility and fertility.

[00:11:13] Now, moving on to what is considered to be the most popular colour in the world: blue.

[00:11:20] Interestingly enough, the ancient Greeks, Chinese, Japanese and Hebrews did not have a name for blue and considered it to be a different type of green. 

[00:11:32] Even today several languages, including, I believe, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and Kurdish don’t make a clear distinction between blue and green. 

[00:11:42] To many of you this might seem strange, as blue is all around us.

[00:11:49] Blue is one of the most dominant colours in the natural world.

[00:11:53] Look up to the sky and you will see a blue colour.

[00:11:57] Look to the seas and oceans and you will also find a large wall of blue.

[00:12:03] And looking down at our planet from space, the vast majority of it looks blue.

[00:12:09] Of course, as we are told as children, the sky isn’t actually blue - it appears blue because of the way in which the sun’s light is scattered when it hits the atmosphere, and that’s why the sky turns red or orange at sunrise or sunset. 

[00:12:27] And similarly, the sea isn’t “blue” either - it simply appears blue because the water absorbs the red light part of the spectrum.

[00:12:37] In any case, in the imagination of most cultures, the link is there: the sky and the seas are blue. 

[00:12:46] There’s the sense that blue is a powerful force of nature, and that’s why it’s used in so many logos and flags to put the message across of something fundamental - whether it’s the beloved British National Health Service or the flag of the European Union.

[00:13:07] But blue has not always been so sought after or desirable

[00:13:12] Not only did the Romans associate blue with barbarism because the Celtic soldiers of Britain dyed their bodies blue, but they also associated blue with mourning and misfortune

[00:13:27] Blue‘s rise to prominence is associated with the rare and precious rock, lapis lazuli, from which you could create the powerful, intense deep blue colour of ultramarine.

[00:13:42] Prior to the 18th century, this magical stone, this lapis lazuli came from a single source in the mountains of Afghanistan. 

[00:13:52] The deep blue colour of the lapis lazuli stone has appealed to people since the dawn of time, and there’s evidence of it being used in jewellery going back to the 7th century BC, and it’s even used on the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

[00:14:12] It would be mined, polished, and used as jewellery, but the stone would normally be left intact.

[00:14:20] Starting in the medieval era, it was increasingly exported to Europe, where it would be ground into a powder and turned into the colour ultramarine, meaning “beyond the sea”.

[00:14:35] This was a very complicated process though.

[00:14:38] First the mineral itself had to be mined in Afghanistan, then it needed to be shipped all the way to Europe, then it would be ground down into a powder and turned into a paint, a process which involved 50 different stages.

[00:14:55] And after all of this, 1 kilogram of the mineral lapis lazuli would only get you about 30g of paint.

[00:15:04] So, as you might imagine, it was incredibly expensive, more expensive than gold.

[00:15:11] For this reason it was typically reserved for particularly important parts of a painting, the dress of the Virgin Mary, for example, and was associated with extreme wealth and luxury

[00:15:26] Now, moving on, purple, a mixture of red and blue, is our next colour. 

[00:15:33] Glancing at your phone, you will note that varieties of purple are popular with the branding of companies. 

[00:15:41] The Leonardo English logo is purple - now, if you’re thinking this is because of some deep strategic research or the product of extensive focus groups, I’m sorry to disappoint you. It’s only because since I was a little boy I’ve always loved the colour purple.

[00:16:00] Like blue, it is a rare thing in nature - it’s not an easy colour to create.

[00:16:07] The story of how to create the colour purple has its own interesting myth, and it centres around a Greek hero and a dog.

[00:16:17] According to the legend, the dog belonging to Hercules, the Greek hero, returned one day to his master with a purple stain around his mouth.

[00:16:30] Hercules realised that the dog had been eating sea snails, he went to investigate, and found that a particular type of sea snail gave off a sort of purple dye.

[00:16:44] This tale might well be a myth, but for thousands of years the only way to make the particularly bright and powerful purple called Tyrian Purple was by using sea snails, sea snails that were native to Tyre, a city in modern-day Lebanon.

[00:17:05] Each of these small creatures contained one or two drops of purple juice, and you would need 12,000 to create just one gramme of purple dye.

[00:17:18] The process of creating this purple dye was long, expensive, and very smelly.

[00:17:25] After gathering your tens of thousands of snails you would need to crush them, ensuring that you have plenty of their natural juices to keep the mixture moist, or wet. 

[00:17:38] Then you would simmer or gently boil and ferment this mixture in urine for up to ten days. 

[00:17:47] The smell given off by this process was said to be beyond disgusting, completely foul, horrible. 

[00:17:56] As you can imagine, the resulting dye was extremely valuable – double the worth of gold at one point - and much sought after

[00:18:06] In terms of hours worked, an ordinary labourer would need to work for 24 years in order to buy just a small quantity of this precious stuff. 

[00:18:18] Unsurprisingly, this dye was only affordable for those at the very top of society.

[00:18:25] Reportedly it was the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra’s favourite colour, and it’s from Cleopatra that it became the favourite colour of Roman emperors. 

[00:18:36] When Julius Caesar returned to Rome in 47 BC, having become Cleopatra’s lover, he introduced the purple toga to Rome, and citizens of a certain class were allowed to have a purple stripe on their toga.

[00:18:52] But only one man was allowed to wear the full purple toga - the Big Cheese or big boss himself, Julius Caesar. 

[00:19:01] And for centuries, purple remained a colour associated with power and privilege, due to the high cost of production.

[00:19:11] It was only in the 19th century that a synthetic way to produce purple was discovered.

[00:19:18] This happened when a young Londoner, eighteen year old William Perkins, who was trying to create a cure for malaria from coal tar accidentally discovered a synthetic purple dye in 1856. 

[00:19:35] The factory he subsequently set up made him rich and created his own purple colour, mauve. 

[00:19:43] This colour became widely used in Victorian London – in everything from postage stamps to the work of painters. 

[00:19:52] You will, for example, find plenty of this mauve, this purple colour, in the paintings of London done by Claude Monet. 

[00:20:01] It is an intriguing curiosity that the popular image of late Victorian or 19th Century London, which is of a black and white world, is in fact a misrepresentation of what Victorian London really looked like: there would have been plenty of purple, or mauve, thanks to William Perkins‘s accidental discovery. 

[00:20:26] Now, onto our penultimate colour, our second-last colour, yellow.

[00:20:32] Yellow is the most visible colour on the spectrum - it’s the easiest one to see, and is therefore the colour most commonly used to attract people‘s attention - think of the yellow, “hi-vis” jackets or gilets that everyone from school children on school trips to road workers use. 

[00:20:53] It’s also the colour that most societies believed the sun to be. 

[00:20:58] Like the sky or sea, the sun isn’t actually one colour in particular. 

[00:21:04] It might appear yellow at certain times of the day, or red or orange at others, but this is only because of how its light is scattered by the Earth’s atmosphere.

[00:21:15] If you see photos of the sun from space, it looks white, because it’s actually emitting white light.

[00:21:24] In any case, yellow is the colour most commonly associated with the sun.

[00:21:29] This and yellow‘s association with that most precious of metals, gold, gives yellow such a strong association in many cultures with wealth, good fortune and the divine

[00:21:44] For example, in India, the bright yellow spice, turmeric, is thrown over couples when they are newly married – or newlyweds

[00:21:54] Not so appetising or promising is yellow‘s link with decay, rottenness and the unwanted

[00:22:03] These associations probably go back both to the yellowish colour of urine and also, more poetically, to the yellow foliage or leaves of autumn, much used by Shakespeare as an emblem of ageing

[00:22:19] Macbeth, for example, famously says “I have lived long enough. My way of life/Is fall'n into the sere — the yellow leaf ”. 

[00:22:29] Sere, here means dry, all dried up. So Macbeth is saying that he is like a yellow leaf, dried up in the autumn.

[00:22:40] The most alarming gruesome and abhorrent use of yellow is as a symbol of racial oppression and in particular of anti-semitism. 

[00:22:52] Racist legislation throughout the centuries has forced Jews to identify themselves through yellow. 

[00:23:00] Going all the way back to the 13th century, Jews living in various European states, from modern day Germany to Spain, England to Italy, have been forced to identify themselves by wearing yellow stars, then yellow large hats in the 16th century, and of course in Nazi Germany the yellow star again. 

[00:23:24] And you don’t need me to remind you of the tragic consequences of that.

[00:23:29] Our final colour, white, will, alas, offer little chance for a heartening conclusion to our curious wander through the world of colour, as white, like yellow, has its fair share of links with racism. 

[00:23:45] It is difficult to trace all the origins of these links, but here are a few. 

[00:23:51] It has always been difficult and expensive to process materials in order for them to appear white. Therefore white has long been connected in people‘s minds with money and power. 

[00:24:05] In Ancient Egypt and Rome white was the colour of the clothes worn by priests and priestesses, and indeed even today white is the colour worn by senior religious leaders such as the pope.

[00:24:21] In much of European history only the very wealthy could afford to keep their clothes white because they had the money to employ many servants who would do all that time-consuming washing work for them. 

[00:24:35] This association of white with quality was even evident in the way that in the 1930s white bread became the preferred choice in the UK and USA over its brown, wholemeal [and incidentally much healthier] rival, which was associated with the less affluent, the less rich.

[00:24:58] Fast forward to our 21st-century world. 

[00:25:03] Now, on trend designers have taken the age-old association of white with sexual purity and applied it more broadly in order to make their products attractive. 

[00:25:15] Consider, for example, the use of white in the design of Apple‘s high end products. 

[00:25:23] We can perhaps even trace this back to the history of ancient Greece and Rome. 

[00:25:28] When in the 16th century the idea of the Classical, grand building was given new life by the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, the powerful Classical concept of grandeur in building was tied in with the white colour of the buildings’ material - often Italian and always white marble

[00:25:51] It was only in the mid-19th century that researchers realised that the classical statues and buildings of ancient Greece and Rome had in fact been usually brightly painted, they weren’t white at all. 

[00:26:06] By that time, however, European colonialism and in particular British colonialism was spreading into Africa and India. 

[00:26:16] In the same way that Victorian buildings were built on Classical models, so these imperialists saw themselves as built or fashioned in the same mould as the creators of Ancient Greece and Rome. 

[00:26:31] Somehow, bizarre as it might seem, the link between the white, sparkling marble of ancient statues and buildings and the supposed superiority of white races seems to have been made. 

[00:26:45] This is even more absurd when one stops to consider that the “white” of Caucasian people is, as the English novelist E.M. Forster described it in the 1920s, really a kind of “pinko-grey”, not very white at all.

[00:27:03] Now, when it comes to colours in English, like in many languages, cultural and sociological beliefs about the properties of colour have made their way into language, so let’s explore some of these.

[00:27:18] Firstly, you can be caught “red handed”, meaning you are caught in the middle of something. For example, if you find your child sitting next to a packet of chocolate biscuits with chocolate all around their mouth, you might say you caught them red handed.

[00:27:36] If something comes “out of the blue”, it comes from nowhere, it is very unexpected. Your friend might tell you that a job opportunity came completely out of the blue.

[00:27:48] If someone is going through a “purple patch”, they are going through a period of good luck or success.

[00:27:56] If someone has a “yellow streak”, on the other hand, it means that they have a tendency to be cowardly, a tendency to be afraid. For example, you could say that your friend is a good person but he has a bit of a yellow streak.

[00:28:12] And if you tell a “white” lie, it’s an unimportant lie, an untruth that doesn’t really matter. For example, you might tell your child that they can go on a space rocket when they’re older, even if it might not technically be true.

[00:28:30] And there are plenty of idioms that refer to colours in general.

[00:28:34] If you show someone your true colours, you show them your true character.

[00:28:40] If you pass an exam with “flying” colours, you do an excellent job. 

[00:28:46] If you add colour to something, it means to describe it in greater detail.

[00:28:53] So, there we have it, colour, and some of the curiosities therein.

[00:28:59] It’s pretty amazing to think about how our perception of colour has changed over time, how we have assigned different meanings to colour, that different colours have different qualities and associations. 

[00:29:14] And even more amazing to think that colour is something that, in the literal sense at least, doesn’t actually exist at all.

[00:29:25] OK then that is it for today’s episode on The Curiosities of Colour. 

[00:29:31] We have only just scratched the surface of this fascinating topic, but I hope that it has added some colour to the curious world of colour.

[00:29:41] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:29:44] What are some associations of different colours in your language and culture? 

[00:29:50] Are these the same or different to some of the ones I’ve mentioned in English?

[00:29:54] And how is colour used in your mother tongue? I’m sure there are some brilliant idioms, and I would love to know what they are.

[00:30:03] So, let’s get this discussion started. The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:30:11] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:30:17] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.



[END OF EPISODE]