And now for something new...

If I’ve had a conversation with you over the past two months in person, I’ve probably randomly started talking about the history of using the word “bleu” in French as a profanity...

Jan 23, 2024 5 mins

And now for something new...

There should be a word for the excitement I experience when discovering something new. 

If I’ve had a conversation with you over the past two months in person, I’ve probably randomly started talking about the history of using the word “bleu” in French as a profanity; mentioned how, contrary to popular etymological belief, the phrase “blue bloods” did not originate with the “sangre azul” of Spain; went on a rant about how the “blue laws” of Connecticut was not just a few laws about not working on Sundays written on blue paper, but were truly bloody and horrible in nature and should all be repealed; or casually commented that the reason why being depressed is called having “the blues” originated from the burning of accused witches in 16th century England.

It goes without saying that I’ve not been on a date in over two months.

During the same time period, if you follow me on Instagram, you may have noticed that I’ve been playing with color, starting from photographing crayons and pastels and ending up with creating colorblocked paperboard collages.

However, if you follow me on Threads, you’d be completely confused. I had random posts about Voltaire being wrong, Ada Lovelace’s father’s poetry, perusing Latin texts on “melancholy”, and comparing 10 different versions of the bible in a half-dozen different languages. I’m sorry.

Color

In his book “Interaction of Color”, Josef Albers talks about how we all have these preconceived perceptions about which colors work well with each other, and how that is wrong. Only through experimentation and play can we discover new things about the interaction of colors.

The noun “color” has maintained two distinct meanings since Latin. 

The first is the obvious one, having to do with the spectral composition of visible light, hues, chromatics, pigments, dyes, paints, and all the associated concepts, usages, allusions, and metaphors.

The second is figurative. “Richness of expression; detail or flavour that is likely to generate interest or enjoyment.“ to quote Wiktionary. When a journalist “adds color to a story”, it’s extra detail or flavor that makes you really feel that they know what they are talking about. It’s not the sort of thing that comes over the newswire.

It’s the second meaning which frustrates me about so many modern etymologies I discover, especially regarding phrases related to a color word. Language has evolved in such complicated and random ways, and people conflate trying to find meaning within the current phrase, without necessarily considering how it got here. 

For every single etymology that I’ve researched, the actual evolution of the phrase is so much more fascinating than the commonly accepted one. As you’ll see in my first letter, about “my eye color”, while I really want to know the true etymology, I enjoy a good “fake” etymology with a lot of color.

Blue Research

I began this entire project a little over two months ago, when I simply was trying to figure out why the “Blue Laws” were blue. It was meant to be a short answer. It took over a week to figure out the original source of the phrase, another half week to prove the answer, and then another two weeks to provide context (or color) for the answer. Every source I read provided me with more questions, even as answering previous ones.

Most of what I learned had absolutely nothing to do with actual colors. 

During these months, I discovered a lot of random things. Like about the time Alexandre Dumas père, (the author of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo”) ate a (mostly) raw bear; how the rise of psychology intersected with the fall of people talking about the Devil; which books were banned in Jesuit schools looked like the early 1600s; and who the first “fairy tales” were actually written for.

I ended up consulting more than 900 sources. I say “consulting” because there are many sources I did not completely read, like dictionaries and etymologies, or books where I only needed to read a single paragraph. I’ve used digital scans of books from the 14th century on, as well as visiting multiple academic libraries, and using whatever I have laying around the apartment. I also used Google nGrams to confirm suspicions of trends.

I began to notice patterns of words used or not used. And it led to more questions and what I like to call “rabbit holes”.

Why was the English phrase “black and blue”, “brown and blue” in 19th century German, and “white and blue” in 17th century French? This question sent me down the rabbit hole in which I accidentally started learning a lot about how color was understood throughout history. 

What is color?

How the words evolved, how it was used, how it was misunderstood. I realized that our modern conception of color, like so many other things, started in the 17th and 18th centuries. I mean, I thought I had known a lot about the history of color, but I discovered how much I didn’t know. It changed my entire perspective on how I read color.

A question I had never previously considered was: are the colors of the UK, the US, and the French flags the same or different? If they are different, were they ever the same? If they are the same, were they ever different?

I have to admit, there was a moment when I was even asking myself “are red, white, and blue actually colors, or are they something else?”

Colorphilia

So I’ve decided to start Colorphilia. It’s about my love of color in both senses of the word. 

I’m aiming to send a well-researched 1000-1500 word email once a week, and to send out an email answering random reader queries once a month. (Apparently once you start talking a lot about color, people begin asking you a lot of questions about color.) 

If you have any questions about color, whether related to an newsletter or not, please email me, and I’ll try to research and answer it in my monthly email.

For each piece I will also create a small work of abstract art, because I need a header image for each email. Depending on the medium, the work may be available for purchase as the original work and/or as a print.

The newsletter is free to subscribe to, but optional paid monthly subscriptions to help support my research are very welcome and helpful. I’m also open to either sponsored or commissioned emails related to color in some way. 

As I’ve already written roughly 80 pages about those initial four topics, I’m writing a book about how the shift from the “sacred” to the “profane” in Western Europe and England during the 16th-20th centuries. It’s going to be a collection of about 30 different rabbit holes split into four sections, each beginning with the phrase that has something to do with the word “blue”. (It does obviously cover profanity, but I don’t mean “profane” in that sense.)

Most of the rabbit holes don’t actually belong in an email about “color” because they don’t really have anything to do with color. That said, I’ll update with more as that progresses, and paid subscribers will receive various chapters as they are complete, starting with why they were called the “Blue Laws”. 

So please consider being a paid subscriber at any level if any of the things I mentioned in the second paragraph or if you are interested in the rise and fall of the Devil. And do not worry, even though it is after the 20th century and filmed in the US, the Netflix show “Lucifer” will be covered. 

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