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Colors in Spanish: More Than Just the Rainbow

By Eric W. Vogt

This article takes you beyond being able to speak about color in Spanish than simply knowing the names of the three primary and three secondary colors, black, white and gray. Come explore how to nuance the vocabulary related to sight, the noblest of senses.

Beyond the Basics in Color Vocabulary

This lesson in Spanish vocabulary assumes you already know the names of the primary and secondary colors, black, white and gray. You may also know the two most common words for brown: café, or castaño. But there is more to speaking about color, as you can quickly surmise from the fact that the human eye perceives so many more. To these, let's add pink: rosado.

Remember that colors are adjectives and therefore, if their dictionary form ends in an o, they have a feminine form that ends in a. They all must be pluralized if they modify a plural noun: green houses: casas verdes.

So, let's examine a few ways to add more nuance to your color vocabulary, by adding some adjectives to them which are commonly associated with colors.

A color may be dark, oscuro, or light, claro (ligero is light when speaking of weight). Examples: dark red: rojo oscuro; light blue: azul claro.

A color may be bright: brillante, or muted: apagado. Examples: bright yellow: amarillo brillante; muted brown: café apagado.

In addition to bright or muted, a color could be described as shiny: luminoso; opaque: opaco; translucent: transluciente; transparent: transparente. All of these would follow the name of the color as in the previous examples.

There is one common color that is somewhat problematic: purple. There doesn't seem to be any universally used name for purple. An historical aside regarding púrpura: in the ancient world, this was not the name for purple, but it was (and still is) the name of a mollusk that secretes a yellowish substance that upon exposure to the air turns green, then a dark red that has a bluish cast -- what English speakers call purple. It was exceedingly expensive and thus only royalty wore it -- hence royal blue. This word, a noun, was turned into an adjective by Luis de Góngora who published La fábula de Polifemo y Galatea (1613), a poem in which he used the phrase purpúreas horas as a metaphor for the dawn. The word caught on somewhat once his poem became increasingly influential after the 1620s. But this adjective hasn't really caught on. One solution is morado/a -- but in many places this means brown. Fortunately, the words café and castaño are universally used to represent brown. A close synonym is violado/a -- defined as a morado claro, the seventh color of the visible spectrum.

An interesting note on the usage of café and castaño: Café is less used for hair color and more for eyes; castaño being preferred over café for describing hair color.

When disputing over taste and one wishes to say that a color combination "screams" or is "too much" one can say se ve chillón or that a color es muy llamativo. To be really clear about one's objections to a color or any other matter of taste, one says: Es de mal gusto.