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Bio-bullets

Anglophone biology suffers from orange-blindness

Yellowred may be a funny colour, but its denial by mammalogists is even funnier.

professor caricatureProf. Mumblebard claims: "It is understandable that extremely few mammal species are called orange in vernacular or scientific English. Firstly, owing to its Sanskrit origins, ‘orange’ has not been fully assimilated into scientific English. After all, this is an unusual{njaccess 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8} word for a colour, being both an adjective and a noun in describing the eponymous citrus fruit. Secondly, the word ‘orange’ and the associated citrus fruit only reached England relatively recently from southern Asia. And lastly, the brightest-hued of brownish animals are best described as 'chestnut', 'rufous', 'rusty', ‘golden’, or ‘ochraceous’, terms which are more accurate and precise than ‘orange’."{!njaccess}… See the hidden half of Prof. Mumblebard’s claim by subscribing here{/njaccess}

logoRobin and the Honey Badger respond: "Anglophone scientists have not been accurate, precise, objective or consistent in describing and naming orangeish-brown or brownish-orange species of animals. The use of ‘red’ and ‘reddish’ in both vernacular names and formal descriptions of mammals and birds is – despite its long-standing tradition in biology – incorrect where the hue referred to is demonstrably orange. Terms such as 'chestnut', ‘rufous’, 'rusty', ‘golden’, and ‘ochraceous’, even if used consistently, are no more scientific than ‘orange’, which unambiguously refers to a narrow range of electromagnetic wavelengths. And the historical reasons given for these inaccuracies are not true, either rationally or factually. Firstly, the logical link between colour and citrus fruits is weak because other examples of orange, such as autumn foliage, have always connected Britain, through Europe and western Asia, to southeast Asia. Secondly, English has never lacked a term for this colour, because the Old English yellowred was originally available to describe animals called red inaccurately, e.g. red squirrel, red fox, and red deer. Thirdly, the colour orange{njaccess 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8} did not correspond historically with the eponymous fruit. Orange citrus reached Britain as long ago as 1066, when Old English was unrecognisably different from present-day English, whereas the first record of the word 'orange' is from 1512, around the time when Modern English first arose. Fourthly, Modern English – including the word ‘orange’ – has been written for half a millennium, ample time for this colour to be applied to organisms. The real reasons for the anglophone bias against orange are cultural and subconsciously emotional, and therefore unscientific. Whereas the most widespread Eastern traditions, e.g. Confucian, Buddhist and Hindu, have recognised, celebrated and even venerated this colour for thousands of years, most European traditions have tended to dismiss orange as frivolous despite taking red seriously. The anglophone tendency to overlook orange persists to this day in biology, at the expense of scientific rigour."{!njaccess}… Reveal the hidden half of this response by Robin and the Honey Badger by subscribing here{/njaccess}

Please join us here at the Bio-edge with your own comments. In the discussion below we encourage links to any evidence supporting either Prof. Mumblebard or Robin and the Honey Badger. Illustrations are welcome but please cite all sources or we may be forced under copyright to delete your comment.

 

Anglophone biology suffers from orange-blindness

Last modified on 16 July 2015

Comments   

0 #1 J. Hennessy 2014-05-01 16:00
The QI factoid that the word for orange colour in English is a recent addition to the language is shallowly researched nonsense. A perfectly good word for this colour was already present in England during Roman times, i.e. aurantiacus/-a/ -um. This would have been anglicised as ‘aurantiaceous’ if it had caught on in modern English. The ancient Greeks may have lacked a word for orange colour but the Romans certainly suffered no such lack. And this Latin word came from the same southern Asian root as the word ‘orange’. So it’s wrong to say that English started out lacking words for orange colour. The same word root describing orange colour was already established all the way from India to England as long ago as the time of Christ. So if ‘red squirrel’ is a misnomer for ‘orange squirrel’, it arose because people preferred to call an orange animal red instead of orange, and not because red was the only available word.
0 #2 Johns 2014-05-01 16:20
Remember that marvellous test from the seventies, in which you had to count the number of basketball passes in a video and missed the gorilla walking out among the players and waving at you? I felt pretty sheepish after finding that I’d been oblivious to the gorilla in the room. Overlooking orange in front of one’s eyes is a bit like that. In the case of the gorilla test, the term is ‘inattentional blindness’ because one is so intent on counting the passes, that where the attention goes, at the expense of what would otherwise be obvious. In the case of missing orange in plain sight, we need another term for this human foible of the subconscious. We do notice the colour, it’s just that we shoehorn it into some other colour because of a preconception. Any ideas, anyone?
0 #3 James Markham 2014-05-02 10:19
The mind is capable of downplaying orange as you say, but sometimes the bias works the opposite way. Our minds tend to play up orange when it’s part of a warning colouration in nature. For example, a common aposematic pattern (warning colouration) in insects is stripes of yellow or orange alternating with black. The honey bee worker, although not coloured as vividly as a hornet, looks a bit sinister, and bees are often depicted with orange bands in cartoons. But this is largely imagination, because if you really examine the honey bee it’s hardly banded at all and what’s taken for orange is actually a dull brownish. So people look at some orange animals like red squirrels and notice no orange, but they look at some other animals like bees and notice orange that’s not really there. Both are distortions of reality, just mental programming.
0 #4 Julien Peter Benney 2014-05-02 13:30
It’s interesting that amongst the English-speakin g colonies there are only a few “orange” animals of note, such as the male Flame Robin (Petroica phoenica) and some species of Icteridae and Ephthianura.

It”s interesting to note, as you do, though the comparative frequency with which “orange” is recognised in monsoon Asia.
0 #5 gena count 2014-05-03 15:09
One scientist's retinal cones might see red, another might see/perceive orange, another, rust or chestnut. Who named the scientifically demonstrable colour orange on the ES spectrum? Surely all colours appearing on that narrow band would be a consistent colour, unless it is perception of colour that differs.
0 #6 Gronbek 2014-05-05 09:45
Are you guys sure you’re not just imagining all this orange colour in animals? Give me one example of a mammal that’s orange like an orange fruit.
0 #7 Wildman 2014-05-05 11:28
As a reality check, see these photos, of a kingfisher next to a snake possessing warning (aposematic) colouration. Most people would not describe this bird as orange. But most people wouldn’t think twice about calling this snake a conspicuous example of how orange is advertised as part of aposematic colouration. Actually, the colour is similar in both cases. So the mind seems to be tricking us.



0 #8 P.Daniels 2014-05-05 13:20
A sceptic’s way of testing whether English speakers have a colour bias is to count the number of idioms associated with each colour. According to www.idiomconnection.com, in the English language there are 21 idioms for red, 6 for pink, 2 for yellow, and zero for orange. The fact that our language has no idiom for orange while having more than 20 for red does seem to suggest that our culture is a bit ‘orange-blind’.
0 #9 Brad 2014-05-05 14:39
Lots of birds are like the red fox and red squirrel in being called red but being more like orange in the body parts referred to. Red kite, red knot, red-throated wryneck, red-throated pipit, red-tailed hawk, red-backed kingfisher, red-breasted nuthatch, etc etc.
0 #10 Zoophile 2014-05-05 15:51
You mention that the Latin for orange colour is aurantiacus, but there’s also another way the Romans could have described orange creatures. Fulvus is the Latin word for reddish yellow, approximately equivalent to the obsolete English word ‘yellowred’ but perhaps more on the yellow side so perhaps more like today’s ‘golden’ (disregarding the shine of gold). So even if the proto-English found ‘aurantiaceous’ too pompous for the name of the red squirrel, they could have called it the fulvous squirrel. This might have been biased towards yellow but no more biased than calling this animal red as in fact happened. Either way, nobody can blame a lack of available words for more or less orange colours as English developed since ancient times under Latin influence.
0 #11 Taklamakan 2014-05-08 10:20
The epithet aurantiacus/-a/-um, meaning orange-coloured in Latin, does not seem to be current for any mammal species, although an old name for the agile wallaby (Macropus agilis) is ‘Dorcopsis aurantiacus’. There is one mammal with a subspecific epithet of this colour, namely a Sumatran subspecies of the red-cheeked pygmy flying squirrel (Hylopetes spadiceus aurantiacus). More birds than mammals are called orange. In a brief search I came up with the following bird species called orange in both their common names and their scientific names: the orange-collared manakin (Manacus aurantiacus), the orange-fronted plushcrown (Metopothrix aurantiaca), and the orange bullfinch (Pyrrhula aurantiaca). So orange colour does feature to some extent in the nomenclature of birds.
0 #12 Wildman 2014-05-19 10:55
Here’s another neat fact about orange colour in birds. The hooded pitohui is one of the very few birds that are toxic to eat, using the same principle of self-defence that’s so familiar in large butterflies, and also dart-poison frogs. It reminds potential predators of its toxic nature by means of orange colour. What’s odd about its pattern of colouration for a bird is that the only hue is orange (as you can see from this picture the rest of its feathers are grey or black). There are many birds out there with some ‘orange’ in their plumage but few, as far as I know, in which the only hue is orange. Perhaps that’s what makes the pitohui’s colouration look disconcerting. The hooded pitohui is aposematic and is the best example of an aposematic bird worldwide. Pitohuis are restricted to New Guinea.

0 #13 P. Daniels 2014-09-01 08:51
Anyone interested in the psychological aspects of this topic will probably find the following article fascinating: nytimes.com/.../...
0 #14 Johns 2014-09-22 10:20
For anyone interested in how the brain affects how the eye sees colour, I highly recommend the various materials on the internet of Beau Lotto www.ted.com/.../beau_lotto. He’s an excellent presenter and it’s an interesting subject.
0 #15 J. Hennessy 2014-11-14 17:06
Part 1/1
To test this bias I took the first four clear pictures under ‘orange butterfly’ in Google Images. Then I got pictures of animals called red: red fox, robin redbreast, red duiker, red squirrel. All you people can make up your own minds if the non-butterflies are any less ‘orange’ than the butterflies here.











0 #16 J. Hennessy 2014-11-17 08:51
Part 2/2



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