Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I always thought puce was green, then saw on Wikipedia that it is purplish-brown. Further research tells me that it's generally regarded as purplish-brown in the United States, whereas Europeans think of intense shades of green when they hear the word. (The etymology relates to fleas, and the color of their blood-stained droppings.)

So, why do people think of it it so radically differently, and wherever did the concept of green come into the word puce?


Wikipedia: Puce

On the difference in interpretation:

  1. Yahoo: What does the color puce look like? I never heard of it until just now.

  2. Peggy Oberlin Interiors: Puce , Puse , Peuse , Peuce – Let’s Boycott This Color!!!!

share|improve this question
2  
It's interesting, because I can find a lot of people claiming that puce green is a colour that exists, but I can't find many usage examples - this Google nGram doesn't show 'puce green' at all, and these examples from vocabulary.com suggest the purple definition when not ambiguous (i.e. "he turned puce with anger" makes more sense with purple than green). –  Hannele May 24 '12 at 19:27
1  
The discussion on Wikipedia verigies what you're saying under the section for "puce green": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk%3APuce –  tajmo May 24 '12 at 19:39
    
I haven't been able to find anything definitive regarding the origin of the green definition, but I have found a couple of fascinating articles explicitly detailing its history as purple: books.google.ca/… cabinetmagazine.org/issues/32/sanders.php It's possible that the green notion came about due to conflation with puke green, although I admit that's speculation on my part. –  Hannele May 24 '12 at 20:04
4  
This is why we should all use HTML color codes and forget these confusing words to describe colors. If you just said "#fe63e9", we'd know exactly what color you meant. –  Jay May 24 '12 at 20:46
2  
@Hugo, I've known for a long time that I was confused about my definition of puce. I assumed it was green, looked it up and found it was brown-purple, but found today people from England telling me they remember it as green. So, it's mostly just been confusing and I finally had to do some research. –  tajmo May 24 '12 at 21:10

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I found an interesting grammarian blog on this very topic. Essentially, the post avers that puce is dark purple, but acknowledges the false notion of a "puce green" still persists. (It's theorized that the term might be an adaptation of puke green, but also readily acknowledged that there's no strong evidence to prove that notion.)

Also, I found a dress on Ebay today that was described thusly:

This fabulous Chetta B size 14 cocktail dress is created in a gorgeous deep, rich eggplant purple with a shadow of puce green in a beautiful brocade that is 100% silk.

I suppose that would mean the dress in question is puce-on-puce?

Lastly, I typed "Puce dress" into Google's search engine, and then clicked Shopping; this is what showed up on my screen:

enter image description here

The conspicuously un-puce dress in the middle is being sold as used, so it might disappear from the search query results in a few days. However, it does present some tangible evidence that some people indeed mistakenly refer to pea soup green as puce green.

As for why such misperceptions persist and become widespread, it only takes one exposure to misinformation to lock it into one's brain. This reminds me of a friend who once related how, while working on a project in his garage, he playfully asked his daughter to fetch him a "sawdonkey", making what he assumed was an obviously humorous pun on the word "sawhorse". Problem was, his young daughter didn't know what that object was called, so she simply noted the reference, and tucked it into her brain. Several years later, she was working on a stage crew in college, and it took five or six people to convince her that the object in question was indeed called a sawhorse, not a sawdonkey – she even called her dad that night to verify.

share|improve this answer
1  
I love the sawdonkey story. And it turns out somebody agreed with the definition: youtube.com/watch?v=hbwsFKCUZpA. –  tajmo May 24 '12 at 21:16
    
That reminds me of how a lot of folks think droll means stupid instead of funny, or that Nimrod means dolt instead of mighty hunter. Both are from misunderstandings of children’s cartoons. –  tchrist May 24 '12 at 21:19
    
My dad always used lots of those ‘obvious puns’, and it's caused me to unknowingly have quite a few interesting variations as the default forms of words and idioms. I was at least a teenager before I realised that the word is idyllic and not (as I'd always blindly copied my dad) idylleric. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 16 at 10:53

I always thought puce is purplish, perhaps because the Welsh word piws (pronounced "puce") means purple.

The word entered English from the French, where it had become a fashionable colour amongst the French aristocracy. The earliest OED citation in French is 1775, and in English is 1781 for the noun and 1787 for the adjective, but I found an earlier English example.

In the 1779 epistolary novel The Sylph, published anonymously by Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, the protagonist appropriately describes confusion with new and unfamiliar colour names:

I have had a thousand patterns of silks brought me to make choice and such colours as yet never appeared in a rainbow. A very elegant man, one of Sir William's friends I thought, was introduced to me the other morning.-I was preparing to receive him as a visitor; when taking out his pocket book he begged I would do him the honour to inspect some of the most fashionable patterns, and of the newest taste. He gave me a list of their names as he laid them on the cuff of his coat. This you perhaps will think unnecessary and that, as colours affect the visual orb the same in different people, I might have been capable of distinguishing blue from red, and so on; but the case is quite otherwise; there are no such colours now.

"This your ladyship will find extremely becoming - it is la cheveaux de la Regne; but the colour de puce is esteemed before it, and mixed with d'Artois, forms the most elegant assemblage in the world; the Pont sang is immensely rich; but to suit your ladyship's complexion, I would rather recommend the seuile mort, or la noysette".

Fifty others, equally unintelligible, he ran off with the utmost facility.


I've no idea why some people think puce is greenish, but I did find this from an 1811 The Medical and Physical Journal:

In general, imperial tea is deep green, green tea is puce green, hyson is blueish green, bohea is yellowish green, peko is almost black, gunpowder tea is greyish green, souchong is reddish.

This isn't necessarily saying puce is green; it's saying this green tea is coloured green with a hint of puce (whatever colour puce is).


I expect the confusion is much older, but puce has been mistaken at least in 1992:

I said. "Nobody could pee that much. A beautiful color, puce." "Puce is pink, not yellow," Abdhul said.

And in 1995:

... Most people describe it as an icky yellowish green, when it's actually a reddish brown.
NW: Could that be because puce sounds like puke, so we think of vomit?
LE: Probably. There is something more than slightly odoriferous about the way the word sounds. But there's an alternative name taken from Old English that sounds even worse: pewke.
NW: Whereas puce comes from the French for "flea"?
LE: Right. That's how to remember that puce is a reddish brown — it's the same color as an engorged flea belly.
NW: That's kind of up there with puke. "Oh, I love this dress! It's the color of an engorged flea belly."
LE: Not a pretty picture, is it? We'd swear Wuthering Heights is one ...

And possibly in 1988:

Also, one needs some code to run at the outset that insures the color table is the way you like it when you start up Smalltalk, or after you've done something else, your pretty sky blue Browser label may have turned a sickly puce!

The only explanations I've found involve mistaking puce for a puke green.

share|improve this answer
2  
"Fifty others, equally unintelligible, he ran off with the utmost facility." This is a great answer, yet I found myself very, very curious about the names of those other 50 colors. Maybe that says sad things about me. –  J.R. May 25 '12 at 10:07

The Macmillan Dictionary offers both American and British editions, both of which agree on the definition of puce:

something that is puce has a color between dark brown or dark red and purple

I particularly enjoy Merriam-Webster's definition of puce:

puce, n. : a dark red that is yellower and less strong than cranberry, paler and slightly yellower than average garnet, bluer, less strong, and slightly lighter than pomegranate, and bluer and paler than average wine

Dictionary.com quotes this etymology for puce:

1787, from Fr. puce "flea," from L. pucilem (nom. pulex) "flea," cognate with Skt. plusih, Gk. psylla, O.C.S. blucha, Lith. blusa, Arm. lu "flea." It is the color of a flea.

I don't see the color green referenced in any of the preceding sources.

EDIT: Here's Pantone's color swatch for puce.

EDIT II: To answer the question, people may associate puce with green because they confuse "puce" with "puke." This article, which asserts that Louis XVI coined "puce" to describe the color of one of Marie-Antoinette's dresses (which, truth be told, is a sort of pukey green) may lend credence to this theory.

share|improve this answer
2  
The questions asks: if these are the definitions, then why do so many people think it's green? –  Hugo May 24 '12 at 20:22
1  
@Hugo Because 'common knowledge' isn't necessarily true? –  Gnawme May 24 '12 at 20:43
    
@Hugo You get the same problem with words like chartreuse, taupe, mauve. I’ve absolutely seen people think those respectively mean red, blue, and green. Do they? Of course not. –  tchrist May 24 '12 at 21:08
    
@tchrist, the crayola multi-pack labeled an orange crayon with "chartreuse" for years. –  tajmo May 24 '12 at 21:13
    
@tajmo And what might you conclude from that? I conclude they don’t know what the word chartreuse means. This happens all the time. It’s an example of catachresis in action. –  tchrist May 24 '12 at 21:15

Oxford English Dictionary

puce: A dark purple brown or brownish purple colour.

added

My answer: It has nothing to do with where you live. Thinking puce is a greenish color is always an error.

share|improve this answer
3  
The question is why is it thought of differently in different parts of the world? And more importantly, where did the "green" come from? –  tajmo May 24 '12 at 18:37
    
So far seen no real evidence for the green. But then, I live in the US... One would think if the green definition were used in England, that OED would have included that. –  GEdgar May 24 '12 at 19:20
1  
If you look a the biological literature, you'll notice that the food sources of the fleas in Europe (including the British Isles) result in excrement colored purple/brown, whereas in North America, they result in the dark green color. The physiology of the fleas from the two continents is the same of course. –  Mitch May 24 '12 at 19:31
1  
@Mitch: Maybe this is TMI, but the same thing happens to me sometimes... –  J.R. May 24 '12 at 19:39
1  
@GEdgar, you would think, hence the question. –  tajmo May 24 '12 at 19:48

protected by tchrist Dec 19 '12 at 18:09

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.