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This question was inspired by this one from skeptics.se, about the use of pink and blue clothing to denote the sex of babies. In noting cultures which have the reverse arrangement (i.e. some sort of anti-blue for boys) many examples actually seem to be that language's word for fairly saturated reds, rather than the very pastel shades we mean by modern English "pink."

I was already aware that traditional English hunting coats are called "pinks" even though they are actually scarlet. This set me to wondering if the meaning of the colour name may have changed over time, gradually becoming less saturated?

What I have found so far:

  • In general it is very difficult to be sure exactly what gamut of colours corresponds to an historic colour name;

  • The most common (albeit disputed) etymology for the hunting coats suggests they are based on a tailor's surname, not a colour, so that may be a red herring (so to speak!);

  • Etymologies for the color name generally refer to the plant genus Dianthus, or the species of that genus, Dianthus plumarius, that are commonly called "pinks." However I have an issue with that etymology. Whilst pinks may have a pastel colour, it is not usual. Depending on the soil conditions and exact strain, the colour is quite variable, ranging from white through to a very deep purple. The most common coloration seems to be a rather dark purplish red that perhaps could be called "carmine."
  • This excellent answer about the etymology of pink includes a (probably incomplete) timeline of the word gradually becoming a colour name. In 1819 at least four dyesª were called "pinks". All but one were saturated colours, and one was not even a shade of red. The unsaturated one was English pink, described as a "pale form of Dutch pink."

All of which has been very interesting, but not arrived at an answer to my question: when newspapers of the 1890s—1920s refer to dressing newborn boys in pink, what colour did they mean by "pink"?


a. Brief aside on the chemistry of dyes: the fact that a dye is a "lake" is unrelated to its colour. It is related only to the method of binding the pigment to the cloth. Both saturated and pastel shades may be lakes.

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    Even in modern English, I'm not sure I agree that the word "pink" is that strongly associated with "pastel" tones. Consider that ""hot pink" is a relatively common collocation which refers to a fairly saturated color. – sumelic Jan 7 at 2:39
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    For example, the xkcd color names survey results indicate that a fully saturated mix of red and blue ("magenta" in the RGB model) tends to be called "pink" by English speakers, as long as it's bright enough. – sumelic Jan 7 at 2:50
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    @Kris But (a) that's only one view (b) who's to say that wasn't the view in 1920 or before? I suppose as a comment it might be useful... – Andrew Leach Jan 7 at 7:29
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    @Kris our comments may have been deleted but that still doesn't alter the fact your comment masquerading as an "answer" does not address the OP's request. – Mari-Lou A Jan 7 at 7:31
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    The Legend of Tailor Pink web.archive.org/web/20130825123254/http://www.dtc.umn.edu/… – user240918 Jan 7 at 8:18
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An English-French dictionary circa 1850 translates pink into French as rose, which is what the French call the color pink.

So unless both the French word "rose" and the English word "pink" changed which colors they meant, the color pink has not changed substantially since 1850.

I can't find any French-English dictionaries which contain pink in Google books before 1850, and Google Ngrams seems to show that using pink as a color name was fairly rare before 1840.

Fox hunters have called their scarlet coats pink at least since 1791, according to the OED. I'm not going to speculate why; Wikipedia says that nobody knows for sure.

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