The Grammarphobia Blog

Puce abuse

Q: The word “puce” came up recently and everyone (with varying degrees of certainty) thought it was a shade of purple. But there was a lingering doubt in at least one mind that it might be a shade of green. A Google search turned up enough “puce green” references to suggest this is a common error. What’s the story?

A: “Puce” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a dark purple brown or brownish purple colour.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), has a similar, not very attractive-sounding definition: “a deep red to dark grayish purple.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) calls it “a dark red.”

Where do we stand on puce? We say it’s the color of an eggplant.

But you’re right that a bit of googling turns up lots of references to “puce green,” including many photos of objects in various shades of green (like a VW bus that’s lime green).

Where does this green business come from? Beats us.

A few people have speculated online about the supposed similarity of the words “puce,” “puke,” and “pus.” But we can’t find any reliable source that has commented on this heady issue.

By the way, the etymology of “puce” isn’t very enticing. Literally it means flea-colored.

In French, puce means “flea,” and the French expression couleur puce means “the colour resembling that of a flea,” the OED says.

We’ve never gotten close enough to a flea to determine its color. But apparently the French have, so we’ll take their word for it.

In the OED’s earliest citation for the word in English, it’s used as a noun.

Here’s the quotation, from Thomas Holcroft’s 1781 translation of the Comtesse de Genlis’s Theatre Education : “I love none but gay colours, I cannot endure the prune de Monsieur, and the puce.”

Oxford’s first recorded use of the adjective is from a 1787 account in the Daily Universal Register, as the Times of London was then known: “A broad embroidered border on puce sattin.”

The OED’s most recent citation for the word, used in a compound phrase, is from a 2005 issue of the British Cosmopolitan:

“Vibrators have been known to actually fly across the departure-lounge floor … only to be picked up by staff and returned to the puce-coloured proprietor.”

Aren’t you glad you asked?

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