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I'd like to focus in on the meaning of 'pale' which is used in color description.

My dictionary, OALD, says 'pale' in such case means "light in colour; containing a lot of white". It shows me some examples; pale blue eyes: I understand; a paler shade of green: ditto. Then I have two questions.

  1. a pale sky (from OALD) … Does it mean its basic color depend on time and weather, or pale blue? Or is there another tacit agreement on its basic color?
  2. pale eyes (Ollivander's eyes, from p.308, Harry Potter 4) … Does it mean a specific basic color, or a color depending on readers' imagination?

I’d be happy if you could help me.

4 Answers 4

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For both of your numbered examples, I would expect that "blue" is the implied base color. For the sky, blue is the obvious choice; without a further specifier such as "pale grey", blue pretty much has to be assumed. For eyes, a wide variety of colors may be possible, but blue and brown are the two primary choices, and of the two, "pale brown" would not be written as such (it would be "tan", or "tawny", or "hazel"); and any other base eye color would be unusual enough to be specified: "pale green", "pale bluish-gray", etc.

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There are a number of characteristics that make up a color. "Hue" refers to the color, itself; where it falls in the color spectrum. Color is reproduced by combining primary colors, like red, green, and blue, to create other hues.

"Saturation" refers to the purity of the color. You can start with any hue and add white to make it lighter or black to make it darker. Saturation doesn't have a color, it's a measure of intensity or purity of the color.

Pale refers to any color where the saturation has been reduced by adding white to make it lighter. It has no color, itself. You get clues to the color from the context. A pale sky will have a sky-colored hue (bluish), but be washed out or less saturated that its normal color. Pale skin will have a skin-colored hue but be washed out or less saturated than its normal color.

Pale eyes would be eyes that have a lighter, less intense color. They could be any hue found in eyes, but because of the way eye color is created, colors other than brown tend to be lighter and less intense. So if you had to guess what color eyes were that were described only as pale, it would more likely be something other than brown.

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"Pale" generally means lacking intensity of color; colorless or whitish: "a pale complexion."

In "pale sky" however, the meaning is different :

not bright or brilliant; dim

A "pale sky" lacks brightness, and can be a result of clouds, which make the sky seem kind of grayish, but slightly blue, like the picture below.

enter image description here

"Pale eyes" refer to lack of colour in a person's eyes, and the person's eyes are usually blue. But they may be brown, or green, or aqua. It just has so little colour, that it looks nearly white, but with a tinge of the original colour.

I don't think Ollivander's eyes were any real colour, as the author didn't specify. It's up to the reader.

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    Brown eyes are almost necessarily dark. I presume that in the description, "pale eyes," the operative fact is their paleness, rather than a specific color. The color would be either a blue (pales into gray, like mine, like the picture above) or maybe hazel.
    – Ryan Haber
    Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 17:50
  • @Ham and Bacon, @Ryan – Both of your comments gave me a very important building block for my understanding. 'Dimness' and 'paleness' are much more important in thinking about 'pale thing', yes. I'll keep that in mind. Thank you! (But Ollivander’s eyes are mysterious, aren’t they?)
    – user7493
    Commented Jul 6, 2011 at 4:59
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The word pale in literature often refers to a lack of happiness. It means "washed out" in most cases of symbolism. More times than not, a description of 'pale' implies an inner conflict of whomever it is used for.