French Colours
Roch Rollin

When you start enjoying old roses, you will inevitably come across French names and French descriptions. This may be a bit daunting if the language of Molière is less familiar to you than the Queen's English. However, this need not be an insoluble problem.

I have compiled a list of most of the colour words you are likely to encounter. Each is followed by its English equivalent; and the translation of the French definition. You will also find notes on cultural differences where needed.

Let's get the technical aspects of colour words out of the way first. In French, all nouns have a gender. They are either masculine or feminine, none are neutral. Don't look for logic in this, it's totally illogical. The genders where inherited from Latin, which wasn't very logical in this regard either. But then, few languages are. An example of this: roses and violets are feminine, but carnations and irises are masculine. There are numerous exceptions to every single rule, just to make things interesting and prevent you from resting on your laurels.

In the list, I use the conventional format; the basic masculine singular form of nouns and adjectives is listed first. It is followed, where applicable, by the feminine modifier, usually an 'e' that is tacked on the end of the masculine form. I won't get into the grammatical side of things; there are numerous excellent grammars available on the market; I use an older edition of Grévisse's: Le bon Usage, in case you're interested. Now we get to the nitty gritty, the actual colour words and their meaning.

Some colour words are imprecise to say the least. And there are some notable examples of colour not being the same when translated from French to English, or the other way around. For example, it came as a shock to me to discover that pourpre doesn't mean the same in French as purple does in English. In French pourpre means the colour of a Cardinal's robes, a very vivid, intense red with a very slight blueish cast; while in English it is a colour close to violet, and blue grapes. I can only speculate that this may be due to the original dyestuff that could produce two different colours depending on the process used.* Regular purple was the redder colour, while Tyrian purple was the darker violet shade. Why one should catch on with the Latin French and the other with the English is a mystery to me. Another puzzling colour word is pink. I have been unable to find a French equivalent. We use the rose, Rosa species, as the basis of comparison for pink tints (rose, rosé, rosâtre) while in English, pinks, Dianthus sp., ( pink, pinkish ) are the root of this colour. Blush is a definite problem, there is no exact translation for this word. We use 'rose', or a circumlocution as in 'Cuisse de nymphe émue' literally translated as 'Thigh of a moved nymph' in the sense that she is emotionally responding to some unknown stimulus. If so moved, she presumably blushes down to her thighs? I haven't met any nymphs, so I haven't been able to check the extent of their blushing capacities. In the 18th and 19th centuries, colours were already being given fancy names, like the modern paint samples at the hardware store. At one point, the colour 'caca-dauphin' was all the rage; it doesn't sound so good in English: crown-prince's poop colour, a greenish yellow. Many of these colours didn't last, they were commercial gimmicks designed to take advantage of a fad, and disappeared with the arrival of the next craze. The colours used to describe roses have lasted pretty well. Some have become rare, but most are still in use. If you expect to order roses from French Nurseries or to enjoy old rose books, the following list should be helpful. I have listed most French colour words that can be applied to roses, followed by the English equivalent, and an English translation of the French definition. Don't be too surprised if some of the definitions don't exactly match your idea of the colour. Until the last quarter of the 19th century, the bright intense colours of today just didn't exist. The people of those days would see a red colour as much redder than we would see it today. Same goes for yellow. In all likelihood, they would also have a tendency to see more subtle differences in close tints of pink for example. This would naturally apply to nurserymen, who had more training in colour discrimination, and a short term commercial advantage in introducing roses with almost identical flowers. And they did it constantly. Competition was fierce, and scruples very few as many contemporaries have attested. Things have changed very little as you see.

Since identification of roses depends in large part on the colour of the bloom, we have to work with what we have. I hope this will be helpful. If you come across any other colour words, I'd love to hear from you. I'll research them and add them to the list.

French English Definition
AbricotApricot a pinkish yellow colour, like the skin of the fruit of Prunus armeniaca, the apricot
AmaranteAmaranth a purplish red colour like the flowers of Amaranthus paniculatus, Prince's feather
ArdoiseSlate a dull bluish grey colour, like the stone used for roofing in Europe
Ardoisé-eSlate-colouredof a dull bluish grey colour
ArgentSilvera lustrous, pale grey colour like that of silver
Argenté-eSilveryresembling silver in luster or colour
AubergineEggplant deep violet colour of the fruit of Solanum melongena, the eggplant
BeigeBeigethe colour of natural wool, a very light brown
Beurre-fraisButter-yellowbutter coloured, a very pale yellow
Blanc-heWhitethe colour of new snow
Bleu-eBluethe colour of a clear sky
BleuâtreBluishsomewhat blue
Bleuissant-eTurning bluebecoming blue or bluish
BonbonCandy-pinkvivid pink
BordeauxClaretruby to deep purplish red, like red Bordeaux wine
Bouton-d'orButtercup golden yellow colour of the Ranunculus acris flower, the buttercup
Brillant-eBrilliant-Shiningvery bright
BriqueBrick-red a dull yellowish or brownish red, like common red clay bricks
Brun-eBrowna dark colour combining red, yellow and black
BrunâtreBrownishsomewhat brown
CarminCarmine or Rougea deep or purplish red obtained from cochineal, cf. Crimson
Carminé-eCarmine-coloureda deep or purplish red colour
Carné-eFlesh-pinkmoderate pink or pale orange yellow
CeriseCherry-redbright red like the fruit of Prunus cerasus, the cherry
ChamoisBuffthe colour or untreated leather, a light yellowish brown
CinabreCinnabarintense orange-red colour, mercuric sulfide, cf. Vermilion
Cire-d'EspagneSealing-wax reda bright, rich red colour like sealing-wax
ClairLightpale, not very coloured, diluted with white
CorailCoral-reda pinkish or yellowish red
Cramoisi-eCrimson deep red with a tinge of blue but redder than purple cf. Carmin
Criard-eLoudExcessively showy, flashy
Doré-eGoldena reddish yellow colour like gold
ÉcarlateFlamebrilliant red inclining to orange
Éclatant-eBrilliant, Dazzlingvery brilliant
Érubescent-eTurning redbecoming red as it opens or ages
Fané-eWilted or Fadedfaded like old curtainor wilted flowers
FauveFawnlight yellowish brown with a touch of red
FeuFire-redbright red-yellow colour
FlammeFlame-colouredbright red-yellow, cf. Écarlate
Flammé-eFlame-shapedresembling a flame in shape
FraiseStrawberrythe colour of the fruit of Fragaria spp., the strawberry
Franc-hePure, Naturalwithout the overtones of other colours
FuchsiaFuchsiabright bluish red like the flower of Fuchsia sp.
Gai-eVividvery bright, intense
GaranceMadderbright red extract of Rubia tinctorium
GéraniumGeranium very deep pink almost red like the flowers of Pelargonium sp., the common geranium
GrenatGarneta deep red colour
Gris de linFlax-greygrey colour with a metallic shine like raw flax
Gris-eGreya colour of mixed black and white
GrisâtreGreyishsomewhat grey
GroseilleGooseberryvivid pink, near red, like the red gooseberry, Ribes spp.
Incarnadin-eIncarnadinepale flesh-coloured
Incarnat-eIncarnateflesh coloured or roseate
IndigoIndigo Deep violet blue, dyestuff extrated from plants of the genus Indigofera
JauneYellowthe colour of ripe lemons or sunflowers
Jaune d'oeufEgg Yolkdeep reddish yellow of the egg yolk
Jaune primevèrePrimrosea pale yellow colour like the wild primrose of England
JonquilleDaffodilbright yellow colour of the Narcissus jonquilla flower
LaqueLakedeep red pigment made from cochineal with a metallic oxide
LavandeLavenderpale reddish violet like the flowers of Lavandula officinalis
Lie-de-vinWine-coloureda violaceous red colour, cf Vineux
LilasLilac Light pinkish purple colour of Syringa vulgaris, the common lilac
MagentaMagentapurplish rose or purplish red colour (fuchsin)
MarronMaroondull, dark red colour like the nut of Castanus sativa
MauveMallow-pinkpale purplish pink shade like the flower of Malva sp.
MeriseWild-cherrythe colour of the wild cherry Prunus spp.
MûreMulberry intense purplish red colour like the fruit of Morus rubra, the mulberry tree
MûreMurreya dark purplish red colour
NankinNankeenA buff or yellowish colour
Noir-eBlackof a very dark colour, almost black
OrGoldthe colour of gold, a reddish yellow
Orange Orange a reddish yellow colour like the fruit of Citrus sinensis, the orange tree
Orangé-eOrange-colouredof a reddish yellow colour
PailleStrawyellowish like the colour of straw
PâlePalenot very vivid, mixed with white
ParmeParma violet pale purplish violet shade like the flower of Viola odorata var.
Passé-eFadedpale, whitish or greyish
PêchePeach-pinka yellowish pink colour like the fruit of Prunus persica
PonceauPoppy-redbright scarlet colour of the wild poppy: Papaver rhoeas
PourprePurple a colour of mingled red and blue, between crimson and violet is the official description; but the cardinals wear purple robes that look redder than crimson
Pourpre de TyrTyrian purpleviolet-purple colour of high saturation and low brightness
Pourpré-ePurple-colouredbluer than crimson but redder than violet
PrunePlum deep violet purple colour of the fruit of Prunus domestica, the plum tree
Purpurin-ePurplishsomewhat purple
RaisinGrape dark purplish blue colour like the fruit of Vitis sp., the wine grape
RosâtrePinkishsomewhat pink
RoseRosea very pale red like the wild rose flowers: Rosa spp.
RosePink English description: a pale hue of crimson like the flowers of Dianthus spp.
Rosé-eRoseateof a pinkish tint
RougeReda bright colour resembling that of fresh blood
Rouge vinWinea dark purplish red
RougeâtreReddishmixed with or somewhat red
RougeurBlusha red or rosy tint
RubisRubyrich red colour like the ruby, rich crimson
SangBlood-redrich red colour of blood
Sang de boeufOxblooda deep red colour
Saumon Salmon a light pink with a slight tinge of orange, like wild Atlantic salmon
Saumoné-eSalmon-colouredlight, slightly orangey, pink
SerinCanary yellowa clear vivid yellow
Soutenu-e Intense or saturatedpure and intense
TanTan or tawnpulverised oak bark used in tanning see tanné
Tango Tango orange a dark intense orange, was popular around 1914 when the tango became popular
TannéTan or tawna light yellowish brown colour tinged with red
TendreSoftsubdued or delicate
TomateTomatothe colour of the ripe fruit of Lycopersicon esculentum
VerdâtreGreenishsomewhat green
Vermeil-leRosy or ruddya light vivid red, as of lips etc.
VermillonVermilionintense orange-red obtained from powdered Cinnabar q.v.
Vert-e Green the colour between yellow and blue, like the foliage of growing plants
Vieux (vieille) Softened, aged, oldsubdued or delicate like old silk
Vif (vive)Vividvery intense
Vineux(vineuse)Vinoustinged with dark red
Violacé-eViolaceoustending toward violet in colour
Violet-teVioleta deep colour of mixed red and blue like wild Viola sp.
Voyant-eShowyvery bright and intense
Zinzolin-e Zinzolin Reddish violet, a dye made from sesame seeds. Apparently it is the same in English although it has fallen out of use. It is still used in French however, Chanel has a lip crayon in this colour!

I didn't attempt a pronounciation key, pronounce everything à l'anglaise, as long as you remember how it's spelled, you'll do fine. When you go to L'Haÿ-les-Roses, you'll be able to read the labels, and understand them, which is more than most French people could do. If you want a particular rose, write the name down, and show it to someone. Not everyone is rude, and most rose lovers are kind and helpful. And who knows, you start talking, you get a French lesson for free. One thing leads to another, you marry a marquis, or marquise, you move into a little château in the Loire valley, and live the carefree life of a châtelain, or châtelaine, as the case may be. And after 25 yrs or so, the villagers will start talking about you as Madame, or Monsieur, instead of that crazy American.

*Re: Pourpre versus Purple.

I've been speculating about this curious discrepancy.
Could it be that at a time when both the French and the English languages were still evolving rapidly, the people most likely to be seen wearing striking purple (bright purple) robes, cardinals, disappeared entirely from England? while remaining visible in France. In Catholic countries, the deeper Tyrian purple would be less visible when compared to the brighter cardinal colour, and the brighter shade would become the standard; while in Protestant countries, the darker Tyrian colour would become the norm?
If anyone has anything relevant to this theory, please write.

Please address all comments and suggestions to Roch:

©2001 Roch Rollin