Earlier this week I went to a party where I met a woman from South Sudan. Her name, she said, meant “dark red” in Dinka. Was it common in South Sudan to name people after colours, I asked. It wasn’t uncommon, she said. And is her name just for girls? Yes, she said.
So is there an equivalent, maybe “dark blue” for boys, I asked, happy as always to be chatting along a colours theme. And she started to laugh. And she giggled until little tears formed at the corners of her eyes. “The Dinka are cattle herders,” she said as if in explanation, and giggled again. I didn’t quite understand. “My name is the name for a kind of cattle colour…. (another shudder of laughter)… and no cows are dark blue!” And then we both laughed until we cried at the delightful image of dark blue cows grazing in an orange desert.
It was a lovely, funny reminder of how colour names are caught up in culture. When the Dinka say one word for red they are talking in cattle vocabulary, and when we say some of our own words for colour – beige, say, or scarlet – that word is wrapped up already in so many ideas and associations and shades and sense of taste and fashion, that it is almost untranslateable.
Beige, incidentally, comes from the French word for undyed wool. And scarlet? Scarlet was once one of the most expensive, softest, fabrics you could buy, and it could be available in any colour. But red was the most expensive dye so no wonder the two became so absolutely associated.