When you hear someone say “This blouse is aquamarine,” what do you imagine to be the speaker’s gender identity? Probably you imagine the speaker to be a woman because women tend to use fancier words to describe colours than men. Think of lavender, taupe or magenta as opposed to purple, beige and pink.
Research shows that this phenomenon is not unique to the English language. In Chinese, Russian, Nepali, Spanish, Estonian, Italian, Turkish and Caucasus languages colour vocabularies are gendered. Why would this be the case?
Professor of linguistics Robin Lakoff suggests that men cannot be bothered to make fine colour discriminations because colour is associated with “trivial”, mundane issues such as fashion and home decoration. Such trivial issues are of no concern to men, she argues, as they are expected to focus their attention on more “weighty” stuff like business and politics. Women, on the other hand, spend more of their time on colour-related activities like choosing clothes. No wonder, then, that their colour vocabulary is richer than men’s.
Lakoff’s explanation has never been tested thoroughly. One study, though, suggests that she’s right. The study compared the colour lexicon of men and women of different ages and with different occupations. While all participating women showed to have a richer colour vocabulary than the men who participated, one group of women used significantly less fancy words than the rest of the women: Catholic nuns. Indeed, nuns don’t have to worry about the colour of their clothes since they wear a habit. In fact, nuns deliberately choose a lifestyle where appearance and material possessions play no role.
In conclusion, people’s colour lexicons reflect patriarchal norms that expect from women that they care about looks and appearances, but not from men. Is it a problem if women say aquamarine and magenta, and care about their looks? Not always and not for all women. It becomes problematic, though, when such gender expectations burden women with worries about their appearance, whilst simultaneously denormalising men who like to dress up or wear make-up. Obviously, we should also be careful not to expect from women that they are interior designers and from men that they know everything about politics.