mummies, brains, and cow pee

No, we’re not talking about some kind of zombie thriller or Wiccan ritual. We’re talking about color. More specifically, an excerpt from the chapter on color in Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways:

Describing a colour in terms of something else has a long history. Homer wrote of ‘wine-dark’ seas, Romans called a particular blue from overseas, ultramarine, and a dye produced by a whelk, purple (porphyra). Take a herd of cows, feed them mango leaves, make a purée of the earth on which they’ve urinated day after day for months. Dry, refine, and you’ve got Indian yellow. Mummy (now unavailable) was a brown produced from grinding up Egyptian corpses. Caput Mortuum was a purplish-brown made of decomposed brains. Puce is named after the supposed hue of a flea’s belly (Latin pulex), and the blue of jeans (blue de Genes) after a shade once associated with the city of Genoa. The dye magenta was invented in 1859 and named to commemorate the Battle of Magenta which occurred that year. Crimson is derived from the Sanskrit word for the bug which produced the dye— a krmi. Like many colour names, turquoise is a semi-precious stone and although there is a proposal to call it grue— a combo of green and blue— I doubt it will catch on.

Alan Fletcher passed away this September. But his collected work continues to serve as a kind of giant wunderkammern for those with curious minds.