Shades of gray

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Amanda Mull, "The HGTV-ification of America: You can't escape gray floors", The Atlantic 8/19/2022:

You’ve seen the gray flooring. You know its lifeless hue even if you haven’t been house hunting recently. The stuff is in old-house-rehab shows on HGTV, in the house next door that’s now on the market for the second time in nine months, in the ads for at least one but probably several new condo buildings in a rapidly gentrifying part of your city. It’s as omnipresent online as it is in real life, making frequent appearances in the newly purchased houses of 20-something TikTok-hustle influencers and in the homes that play background to Millennials trying to make their pets Instagram famous.

These floors—almost always made of what’s called luxury vinyl plank flooring in trade terms, or laminate or fake wood in real terms — can vary in shade anywhere from vape cloud to wet gravel. The companies that market them tend to use terms like sterling and chiffon lace and winding brook. Gray laminate seems to have begun the journey to popularity about a decade ago; when I last apartment hunted, in 2017 in Brooklyn, it was already common in listings that bragged of newly renovated units. Now gray flooring is so ubiquitous that all kinds of people — interior designers, real-estate agents, random Redditors — have begun to plead for mercy.

This being Language Log and not Architectural Aesthetics Log, our focus here is on the chi-chi color names.

And there are a lot of them, especially if we venture beyond flooring into paint colors.

Sticking to shades of gray, Sherwin-Williams offers us Drift of Mist, Guild Grey, Sweater Weather, Vessel, Mineral Deposit, Pussywillow, Fawn Brindle, Bedrock, Homburg Gray, Night Out, and Skyline Steel.

Behr suggests  Fashion Gray, Elemental Gray, Classic Silver, Natural Gray, Platinum, Shark Fin, Silver Feather, and Dolphin Fin.

Home Depot features PPG-Glidden shades named things like Aria, Tornado, Free Reign, Gray Stone, Equilibrium, Downpour, Armory, Silver Screen, Go To Gray, Gray Shadows, Cool Charcoal, Early Evening, Slate Pebble, Hot Stone, Lazy Afternoon, Licorice, Eagle Eye, Deconstruction, Bark, Oswego Tea, and on and on…

Update — Andy Stow in the comments reminds us of Annalee Newitz, "An AI invented a bunch of new paint colors that are hilariously wrong", ars technica 5/19/2017 — which I posted on at the time, "The unreasonable hilarity of recurrent neural networks", 5/21/2017.


  1. Laura Morland said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 5:02 pm

    I've always wondered whether these firms hire former English majors (or unemployed poets) to come up with these whimsical names.

    And it's not a grey name, but when my parents had our new house built in 1964, the color chosen for the long interior corridor was an off-white called "Champagne Bubble." I found that name so amusing that I've never forgotten it!

  2. AntC said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 5:11 pm

    As ever, I'm not so sure how new this all is.

    My parents house-hunting used to complain everything was 'Eau-de-nil' [**] — which similarly had exotic-sounding paint trade tones. Also wasn't there a 'beige' fashion satirised by that talking-down-her-nose woman on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In?

    [**] the etymology is 'nil' from Nile river, but it was at least convenient 'nil' amounts to 'nothing' in English.

    [(myl) Definitely not a New Thing. From the NYT 2/9/1908, we have a story subtitled "Quaint, Grotesque, and Absurd Terms Used to Describe the Most Delicate Tints", including passages like this:

    Some time ago certain shades of indefinite ash gray, with a slight undertone of pink, resembling ashes of roses, which is supposed to be derived from the colors of a sunset sky, by the way, were known by the absurd names of "frightened mouse" and "elephant's ears".

    Later in the same story, we learn that

    Another one of the amusing fashions in France, in which probably color played its part, was the gowns which were supposed to express certain emotions by their trimmings and colorings, and which Molière has held up to ridicule in his famous "Précieuses." A ribbon which suggested "forwardness" went by the name of "marked attention", and another absurdity was the gown known as the "stifled sigh," (probably a combination of palest mauve and pale blue) trimmed with "superfluous regrets." Equally absurd were the cap of "assured conquest" and the muff of "momentary agitation," which latter no doubt resembled the modern combinations of chiffon and sable edgings, with a bunch of violets, …

    You can read Molière's Les Précieuses Ridicules for the details, though a quick search doesn't get me to any relevant passages.

    Anyhow it's easy to find more stuff like that, in centuries past.]

  3. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 5:33 pm

    Someone was complaining to me recently about color names for clothing sold on an internet website, which also turned out to be Pantone colors:

    Troposphere, apparently a faded blue-grey:

    Myristica, a brownish or yellow-brown color:

    The name “myristica” come from the scientific name for the genus of trees that includes Myristica fragrans, the nutmeg/mace spice tree.

    Pantone, for those who don’t know, develops, names and defines colors, assists with color “branding” so companies have proprietary colors for logos and other identification, predicts color trends, provides color guidance to graphic designers and fashion and home decor developers, and provides other services and data regarding color through the Pantone Color Institute. Their influence is wide-reaching.

  4. Laura Morland said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 5:51 pm

    (Just FYI, the "talking down her nose woman on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" was none other that Lily Tomlin, one of the greatest American omediennes of the last 50 years:)

  5. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 6:02 pm

    Don’t forget the color merger of beige and grey, or griege (not to be confused with greige cloth, the untreated, fresh-off-the-loom cloth, which I see used most often in reference to cotton cloth before prepping, dyeing, and/or printing). Here’s an article with some home decor examples, such as “Revere pewter”:

    “Gerige” rhymes with beige:


    Blues inspired by the Nile and by Egypt have been around for at least a couple of centuries. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, the British defeat of the French in Egypt, and the many discoveries (and looting of artifacts) from Egypt influenced art, fashion, furniture design and more. The fad for Egyptian styles began in France but was adopted by the English elite, too, during the early 1800s. So eat-de-nil has a longer history than “chiffon lace” and “winding brook” greys.

  6. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 6:08 pm

    Sigh. It has a “u” now —I hope it still does when it posts.

  7. Viseguy said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 7:38 pm

    In the multi-hued world of fountain pen inks, there are many color names that are situated pretty far right on the descriptive-allusive-whimsical continuum:

    I'm no marketer, but I think the name of the game, whether it's colors or product names more generally, is brand identity/memorability, not to mention trademark-ability. Why General Mills calls one of its cereals Kix rather than puffed corn balls or whatever, for example.

  8. AntC said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 9:12 pm

    Lily Tomlin, one of the greatest American [c]omediennes of the last 50 years

    If you say so. (Perhaps her best work wasn't as 'Ernestine'?) I watched R&M (only occasionally, on British TV) for the lurid interest: is this _really_ what Americans find funny. IIRC the 'beige' piece was a put-down on social climbers who couldn't distinguish vs 'wheat' (with a heavily aspirated 'h') vs cream.

    For balance: I watch Monty Python re-runs these days with the same sort of lurid interest: did people really find this funny back in the day? Did even I find it funny? Who was I? Must have been me because I can still recite chunks of the Dead Parrot and Cheese Shop sketches.

  9. David Hilbert said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 9:33 pm

    I can no longer find my copy of the well known Dictionary of Color by Maerz and Paul but it is fascinating to flip through the pages of color names correlated with samples and see the weird variety of color names and the colors they are associated with. As I recall they explicitly excluded commercial paint names as being too ephemeral. One of the landmarks of mid-20th century color science was, Color: Universal Language and Dictionary of Names. It supplies a comprehensive naming system for colors along with detailed instructions on how to use it (and correlate it with the widely used Munsell system). It finishes with two long lists of color names. The first is organized in accordance with the universal language so if one wants to find names used for colors in the strong yellow green category in the universal language one can learn that among the names for those colors are: apple green, calliste green, love bird, clear dull green-yellow, and chartreuse. The second is organized alphabetically and allows one to translate color terms into the universal language. It was a monumental piece of work and, in certain circles, quite useful.

  10. David Hilbert said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 9:36 pm

    I forgot to give the authors of Color:Universal Language … They were Kenneth L Kelly and Deane B Judd of the Sensory Environment Section, Center for Building Technology, National Bureau of Standards.

  11. Seth said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 10:20 pm

    Of possible interest:

  12. Paul Garrett said,

    August 24, 2022 @ 12:14 am

    Yes, Lilly Tomlin. Talking down her nose. :)

    She did many quite-deliberately-silly things, very masterfully.

    … and, in particular, it would be misguided to interpret any of her riffs in a naive way. She was not naive, herself! Maybe had to make a living in some movies or shows that did not really present her best virtues… but, um, I guess that's what actors do. I greatly admire her.

  13. KeithB said,

    August 24, 2022 @ 7:18 am

    I have also wanted to be the one with the color naming job,

    Of course, this post could have been about all the colors of off-white and beige. We have been trying to do some color matching and even the mfg's change the colors but keep the names!

    Barbara Phillips Long:
    More importantly Pantone provides the inks for the presses so you can be sure that the Troposphere you specify comes out that way on the page.

  14. Linda Seebach said,

    August 24, 2022 @ 11:26 am

    I once bought an outfit (for a job interview) that was sort of a shimmery gray fabric, and discovered, in conversation with the saleswoman, that the color was "wet cement." Quite accurate, but probably not intended for customers' ears.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    August 24, 2022 @ 11:34 am

    "In the multi-hued world of fountain pen inks, there are many color names that are situated pretty far right on the descriptive-allusive-whimsical continuum" — my long-time favourite (for at least ten years) is J.~Herbin's Violette pensée, which I use for everything that does not require a more sombre hue.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    August 24, 2022 @ 11:43 am

    Oh, and for most of my 75 years I believed (well, "assumed", really) that "ultramarine" derived its name from the deep blue that I assumed characterised the ocean depths — it is only within the last decade, probably less, than I discovered that it actually derives its name from mediæval Latin ultrāmarīnus, $<$ Latin ultrā (beyond) + Latin mare ([the] sea).

  17. Andy Stow said,

    August 24, 2022 @ 12:29 pm

    Don't forget the neural net color name generator from about five years ago!

    I believe my hallways are "stummy beige," but my living room is "stargoon."

    [(myl) Thanks for reminding us — See also "The unreasonable hilarity of recurrent neural networks", 5/21/2017 …

    The walls of the room I'm in now are Sindis Poop, I think. ]

  18. john v burke said,

    August 25, 2022 @ 12:44 am

    @AntC and @Laura Morland: watch a movie called "The Late Show." It's the only role I've ever seen that gave Tomlin a chance to use her considerable acting ability, with a smart script by Robert Benton and a terrific cast featuring Art Carney, Bill Macy, and Eugene Roche.
    And to return to the color name theme: my kitchen is painted in Benjamin Moore's Tickled Crow, a quiet greenish hue.

  19. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 25, 2022 @ 1:44 am

    My car is what the manufacturer is pleased to call "midnight shade". I'd expected that name to indicate some dark blue, but it's actually a metallic copper, albeit so dark that even in bright sunlight you have to stand fairly close to tell it's not simply black.

  20. zafrom said,

    August 25, 2022 @ 6:15 pm

    For Southern California baseball fans, Pantone 294 is Dodger blue. Speaking of blue, Myrna Loy is Muriel Blandings in 1948's "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House". In one scene, she eloquently and in extended detail describes to two workers the exact paint colors that she would like: "I want it to be a soft green, not as blue-green as a robin's egg…", etc., for 253 Microsoft-counted words. Then, worker one: "You got that Charlie?" Charlie: "Red, green, blue, yellow, white."

    (Speaking of experiencing Monty Python for the first time — and one mayn't remember if one's clothes were Ronching Blue or Light Of Blast — there was "Upper Class Twit of the Year". Under the influence of a bulrush or two, more enlightening than a champagne bubble.)

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