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A Word for Blue

Is it true the Greeks had no word for ‘blue’?

It’s a question that keeps resurfacing. Same as “Do the Eskimos (sic) really have 50 words for ‘snow’?”

We were thinking about this after a conversation with painter Chris Volpe about his impressionistic oils of sea and sky (a subject we’re both fond and keen observers of). It’s a topic Rebecca Solnit brushes up against in contemplating her recurring theme of ‘the color of distance.’ There’s no ‘there,’ there: the blue is an optical illusion created by the way light travels through the atmosphere. In deserts, like the ones Solnit appreciates in deliberate exercises in ‘getting lost,’ one will never reach plateaus of turquoise tufa. Here in Boothbay Harbor, when you scoop a cup of the bay into the boat, it will be clear.

The bigger question is where vocabulary comes from.

The answer to the ancient Greeks’ characterization of ‘blue’ is that there were few references in the texts that remain to colors of any kind. There’s the famous ‘wine dark sea’ of Homer – a description that’s apt on the Midcoast on those bright, cool, windy days of September when the sun angle gives the ocean the color of sapphires.

Which made us wonder how and when Homo sapiens built a vocabulary.

Like small children now, the words come as the needs arise. There’s imitation and familiarity, now; but on that first day that the sky was red from burning grasslands, who first mouthed a noise that meant ‘Look! Something’s different over there where it’s usually dark!” And it was off to the races for the linguists.

For millennia we’ve accumulated, adapted and adopted words that express so many things. Nuances and poetics that literally ‘turn’ a phrase into something the human emotion recognizes, understands and responds to, deep in the levels that lie beyond mere comprehension.

There are words to describe a million shades of blue. And words Chris Volpe, our ‘own’ Kevin Beers and the Maine Wyeths (and their art stores) know: vermillion and cerulean made from ground lapis lazuli and titanium white. And words that distinguish different wines and beers with the vocabularies of vintners and craft brewers.

And then there are the efforts to describe a starry midnight sky, or a warm peach fresh from the orchard, or a child’s laugh, or the look in your daughter-the-bride’s eyes, or an early morning mist rising on the bay. Each of which just called something to your mind. Something beyond words.

This is the dictionary we build with imitation and familiarity at Spruce Point Inn, year after year.

The vocabulary of ‘oceanside memories made in Maine.’

Image: “Rams Island Light” by Kevin Beers.