The color blue

If you can't describe it, does a thing exist? Also, the color of my sofa. And, 7 other things worth your time.

A while back, when I was originally setting up this newsletter, I made a very quick decision.

I chose the colors blue and white for the color scheme. It was really just a matter of clicking a few boxes in the dashboard on Substack, which is the platform where I run this whole thing.

Why blue? Well, I like the color. But the bigger reason is that large digital media brands like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, and even newsletters like Morning Brew and the Skimm, all use shades of blue on white.

I didn’t have a big team of editors and researchers to study user experience and figure out if certain colors on a website make readers stick around a tenth of a second longer than others.

But, I figured those brands all did.

So, blue won. However, it hasn’t always been that way.

In fact — here we go, another thing I got sucked into, and maybe the entire world realized this a while back but I just learned it: It turns out that the color blue … hasn’t always existed.

Well, not for everyone, anyway.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to write about this. (I’m getting a lot of what you’ll see below from sources here, here and here, for example).

But, if you go back in history, you’ll see that the word “blue” took an awfully long time to appear in many languages. My ancient Greek, Chinese, Hebrew and Japanese are pretty spotty, but apparently none of these languages had a word for blue.

And if you were to keep track of the colors cited in Homer’s The Odyssey, black is mentioned 200 times. White? 100. Red? 15. Blue: Zero.

The source for that is pretty wild: William Gladstone, who later became the British prime minister, but who in 1858 sat down to count the color references. Among the language choices Gladstone had noted, which sent him down this path, was Homer’s description of a “wine-dark sea,” as opposed to a dark blue one.

Later, a 19th century German-Jewish scholar named Lazarus Geiger picked up on Gladstone’s observation, and studied “Icelandic sagas, the Koran [and] ancient Chinese stories,” as Kevin Loria wrote for Business Insider, along with, ”an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible,” and Hindu Vedic hymns:

“These hymns,” Geiger wrote, “of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently.

The sun and reddening dawn’s play of colour, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again… but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs… and that is that the sky is blue.”

The exception to this lack of blueness, apparently, was the ancient Egyptian language. Egypt also happens to have been one of the only ancient cultures that figured out how to produce blue dye.

Wait, I wondered when I read that. “Blue” doesn’t appear in the Bible? So, I found a full-text online edition of the Bible and started searching.

In most editions that I looked at, “blue” came up around 50 times, but the vast majority of these instances (although not exclusively) are in the books of Exodus and Numbers, which of course are about the Jewish escape from Egypt.

(We have some legitimate Bible scholars amoung our readers; if I’m missing something here, please let me know.)

As you can imagine, this has all led to further study. For example, yet another language I don’t speak — Russian — reportedly has no single word for blue, but instead has words for “light blue” (goluboy) and “dark blue” (siniy).

Whether cause or effect, MIT scientists in 2007 did an experiment that suggested native Russian speakers can differentiate between shades of blue faster than native English speakers can.

Anyway, despite the fact that it’s sort of the new color on the linguistic block, would it surprise you to know that blue is the most popular color among people in almost every country on earth?

Well, at least every country that YouGov polled in 2015.

In the United States, 40% of men say it’s their favorite, and 27% of women, which is enough to rank it #1 for both sexes. In the UK it’s 40% for men and 27% for women.

I guess it’s mine too. And, since I realized that as I’m writing this, I’m wearing a blue t-shirt and a blue hoodie, while sitting on my blue sofa (different shade) and drinking tea from a blue cup—and since I still don’t have a big team of editors and researchers—I suppose I’ll stick with it.

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Your Membership Dollars at Work

Speaking of a big team of editors and researchers (or even a small team) … You know those signs at highway construction sites? “Your Tax Dollars at Work?”

Here’s how paid memberships are already at work: I’m recruiting the first two assistant editors for Understandably.com.

Know someone who might be a good candidate for these remote, part-time positions? Please tell them about it! (The job ads for both spots can be found here.)


7 other things worth your time

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Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Pixabay. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here

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