I always considered the word "colors" as synonymous with the word "crayons," e.g. "the teacher asked her students to take out their colors" would mean "the teacher asked her students to take out their crayons."

By extension, I always thought "coloring" meant "using crayons" (moreover, to the exclusion of colored pencils, markers, etc.).

However, these usages came up at work today, and everyone thought I was odd for these assumptions.

Am I totally off-base, or are these regionalisms of which I've been unaware?

(If it helps, I was born, raised and continue to live in central Wisconsin, and the same goes for my parents.)

  • 3
    "Colors" may refer to crayons, markers, pencils, paints, chalks, or what have you. A teacher can tell students to take out their books without specifying which ones. Given the context, the students will just know what is meant by such general terms.
    – Robusto
    Sep 1, 2015 at 16:13
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    The words 'colors' and 'crayons' are synonymous (ie they're interchangeable in some situations). But the overlap of their senses is quite small. Similarly, my first thought when reading 'crayons' was of the wax variety, but 'coloured pencils' is synonymous here. And certainly restricting 'colouring' to 'using a pencil' or 'using a wax crayon' is not stadard usage. Think of adding say dye (color v.t. 18. to give or apply color to; tinge; paint; dye.) {R H K Webster's}. Sep 1, 2015 at 16:45
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    When I was growing up, in suburban Louisville KY, "crayon" meant "Crayola" or some cheap imitation, but "colors" (almost always plural) would sometimes be used to mean "crayons" (as in "Now everyone take out your colors and color in the picture in your lesson"). "Colors" was less common than "crayons", but was universally understood. I've heard the term used similarly in other parts of the country, so I don't think it's limited to small parts of the US.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 1, 2015 at 21:34
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    @HotLicks: a coloring book is called that because the intent is to add color (as in red, blue, yellow, green, etc.) to the pictures. There is absolutely no implication about what medium those colors will be in (wax, chalk, alcohol, water, acrylic, oil, whatever).
    – Marthaª
    Sep 1, 2015 at 22:24
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    For what it's worth, I've never encountered this usage of "colors". To my mind, it's totally wrong: wax crayons may be ubiquitous in schools, but to equate such an inferior coloring implement with "coloring", as if no other possibility existed, is ... I have no words, it's so wrong.
    – Marthaª
    Sep 1, 2015 at 22:32

3 Answers 3


As a parent, if I were to tell my child to color (v), she could take out her markers or crayons or colored pencils. The northeastern US parent and child would not use colors as a noun; instead, he or she would say specifically, "Take out your crayons/markers/colored pencils."

  • This is similar to my experiences in the southern US (Texas/Louisiana) Sep 1, 2015 at 21:25
  • Or "pencil crayons" in Canada.
    – Cat
    Sep 1, 2015 at 21:45
  • 1
    This is true for California as well.
    – Marthaª
    Sep 1, 2015 at 22:48
  • The number of NE US parents and children is large. In my (limited) experience, your claim about what they would not do is untrue.
    – JEL
    Sep 2, 2015 at 6:05
  • Just to update--I said to my daughter yesterday, "Why don't you color (v.)?" to which she replied, "I can't find my colors." !!! So there you go.
    – MRS30
    Sep 16, 2015 at 18:43

The use of 'crayon' became muddled in the 20th century by the advent and use of Crayola crayons in 1903. Designed for use by children--safe, non-toxic--generations of children now grown understand 'crayon' to designate specifically waxy coloring sticks, that is, 'Crayola' brand crayons. In fact, however, 'crayon' (noun) was and still is used to mean

a. A pointed stick or pencil of coloured chalk or other material, for drawing.

(from the OED, italics mine)

The use as a noun, from Latin creta (chalk) via French, is first recorded in English around 1660. Likewise, the verbal use ('to draw with a crayon').

So, your idea that the use of 'crayon' meaning specifically a waxy non-toxic coloring stick [usually or always branded "Crayola"], [started out as] a regionalism, has some basis in fact: that use arose and spread with the Crayola brand of crayon. 'Crayola' itself was invented by the wife of one of the inventors of the waxy, non-toxic crayons, who compounded the French word for chalk and part of the French word for 'oily'.

For a history of Crayola crayons see, for example, "Crayola Crayon History".

Edit: Response to Comment on this Answer by OP

Your parenthetical statement in the question ("to the exclusion of colored pencils, markers, etc.") sponsored my conclusion that the usage muddle arising from the dominance of Crayola brand waxy, non-toxic crayons in the crayon market was at least partly to blame for the usage issue you encountered at work.

Your comment on this answer clarified your central concern with the usage of 'colors' and 'coloring', while at the same time acknowledging that part of the issue at work might have come from your understanding of 'crayon' as meaning specifically waxy crayons. When you clarified your concerns in your response to my answer, you defined your questions more precisely. You asked whether

  1. "'crayons' can be called 'colors'",

and whether

  1. "'coloring' is understood to be done most often with crayons (if not exclusively)".

As I point out in my response to your comment (and elaborate here), the answer to your first question ("can crayons be called colors") is yes. The OED, for example, gives the following definition under the headword colour | color, n.:

III. A coloured object, and related senses.

  1. a. A substance used to give something a particular colour ....

This is the sense you encountered in school. Even if the noun sense of 'color' was not as a matter of definition applied to a substance used to impart color to something, figuratively used (in synecdoche or metonymy), 'color' denotes the substance used to impart color.

Now, as I indicate in my response to your comment (and elaborate here), the answer to your second question is, with qualifications, no. Simply, 'coloring' is understood to be done with whatever substance is or might be used, whether it be wax, chalk, graphite, paint, ink or any other; in fact, no substance at all need be understood, because 'color' is a quality of light. A rainbow, for example, colors the sky.

However, I suspect your question pertains to a local, that is, a local educational, context, as given in your example ("the teacher asked her students ...."). In that case, the answer to your second question might well be yes. In a local educational context, 'coloring' may well be understood by students to mean coloring with whatever substance and instrument is most frequently or always at hand, including crayons. This situationally specific interpretation of 'coloring' is a localism (rather than a regionalism), and a narrow localism.

  • 3
    Sorry for any confusion. My question was whether "crayons" can be called "colors," and whether "coloring" is understood to be done most often with crayons (if not exclusively). I get what you're saying, though, that my issue might be simply a too-narrow concept of what a "crayon" (i.e. a "color") is in the first place.
    – Khromy
    Sep 1, 2015 at 18:30
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    I don't think "crayon = waxy non-toxic coloring stick" is a regionalism, or if it is, it's a very widespread one (covering all of the US at least). What the question is asking about is "color = waxy non-toxic coloring stick", which emphatically IS a regionalism, and one that's Totally Wrong to people who aren't covered by the affected region.
    – Marthaª
    Sep 1, 2015 at 22:39
  • @Khromy, that's 2 questions. (1) Yes: sense III 18 a in the OED is "A substance used to give something a particular colour", and that is a common use; (2) No, not in general, but depending on the local context, that understanding might be common. For example, in a school environment (as per your example), where crayons (of whatever type) are the usual coloring implement, your example could easily be common--that is, "colors" in that local environment might frequently or always mean "crayons". As an aside, I think you're partly on the right track with the "too-narrow concept" issue.
    – JEL
    Sep 2, 2015 at 5:57
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    @JEL There is no evidence from the OED that crayon was ever applied to the graphite pencil - only to colouring chalks etc.
    – WS2
    Sep 2, 2015 at 18:14
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    @JEL A professional's terminology is going to differ from that of the general public, and matters not as to how well-understood or well-received the specialist's use will be among the uninitiated. FedEx carries no passengers but is an airline; diocesan Catholic priests are secular; the all-female Kappa Kappa Gamma is not a sorority but a fraternity. Describe them as such and expect quizzical looks. In my childhood crayons meant wax crayons, and never gum crayons (pastels) or pencil crayons (colored pencils), or chalk crayons (chalk), and I venture that most Americans would agree.
    – choster
    Sep 3, 2015 at 23:05

You are not strange...I heard this in school. I went to school in the Midwest, West coast, and also the south (Louisiana.). We had crayons and markers.

  • Likewise (hence the upvote). My early schooling was in S. Illinois, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.
    – JEL
    Sep 2, 2015 at 6:08

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