More than just the works of B.B. King, the colour of the sky at dusk, or being dumped by a long-time significant other, Classic Blue, specifically 19-4052, just happens to be the Pantone Color of the Year for 2020. For more than 2 decades, Pantone, through thoughtful consideration and trend analysis, has selected an annual colour which is forecast to influence product development, graphic design, and packaging in industries such as fashion, industrial design, and home furnishings. Summarizing Pantone’s reasoning, classic blue encapsulates the yearning for calmness, confidence, harmony, focus, stability and tranquillity at a time when these very values seem to be diametrically opposed with our daily lives, where everything looks to be in a state of rushed, dramatic, tangential upheaval. Though this explanation may help us to understand why it is the most popular colour among Americans and Europeans, let’s dig a little deeper into the word, the shade, and its uses.
When it comes to breaking down the colour, technology has the easiest answer – blue is light with a dominant wavelength between approximately 450 and 495 nanometers and a frequency of between 606–668 THz, or, if you’re seeing it on a computer, it’s #0000FF. Likely falling near the middle of these parameters, the “classic” in Classic Blue denotes, etymologically speaking, the fact that it is a standard, pure, “true” blue, stemming from the Latin classis, meaning ‘of the first or highest class or importance’, and first used in this sense in Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall (1604). As for the descriptive colour itself, the term blue, first used circa 1300 in a story of Childhood Jesus referenced in Carl Horstmann’s 1875 edition of Old English Legends (Altenglische Legenden) stating: “This one shall be fair blue cloth, this other green,” along with all of its variations (such as blew, bliu, blu, and blwe), arrived in English via the Old French blew, bleu derived from the Proto-Germanic word for the colour of the clear sky, blæwaz.
Compared to other basic colours, such as red, brown, and black, blue is a relative newcomer. Rarely present in nature and hard to create in dyes and pigments, the colour blue has been elusive and expensive for most of its 6,000-year history, so much so that Ancient Greek works, like Homer’s epic poems, don’t even have a word for it. Moreover, some scientists have even suggested that the ability to see and perceive the colour is a relatively modern evolution of our eyes. That being said, we do know that the first blue dyes were made from plants, such as woad and indigo, while pigments were made from ground azurite or lapis lazuli mined in Afghanistan. With production and transportation being expensive, it wasn’t long until alternatives were developed: by 2500BC, ancient Egyptians had started grinding and heating silica, lime, copper, and alkalai, thus creating the first synthetic blue pigment. As technology spread, the colour soon appeared in Persia and Rome, and, many centuries later, thanks to the Catholic Church deciding to colour-code the saints in 431AD, the colour was exposed to Westerners via depictions of the Virgin Mary, who was given a blue robe.
Associating the colour with the Virgin Mary helped to correlate it with her attributes, notably innocence and trustworthiness – hence the usage “true blue” which originated in the 1630s – but some of blue’s other attributes come from outside sources or common usage. For example, the connection between blue and divinity can be traced back to the Egyptian god Amun, who could make his skin turn blue so that he could invisibly fly across the sky. Additionally, the simple fact that only authorities and “higher-ups” could afford the costly dyes and pigments to make something blue helped to connect the colour with the concepts of stability, virtue, and wisdom.
Of course, in addition to all these positive attributes, there are some negatives that many of us might have experienced. With the colour being considered comparatively “cool” (as opposed to “warmer” colours) as well as it being the shade of bruises, reduced circulation and illness, blue also has an association with sadness, melancholy, and the indecent. The first example of this usage can be found around 1450, when English poet Henry Lovelich translated Robert de Borron’s Arthurian poem, The History of the Holy Grail, writing: “Her hearts both blue and black they were…for her friends deaths.” The idea of coarse or obscene language or situations was first termed “blue” by John Mitford (using the pseudonym Alfred Burton) in the 1818 poem, The Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy. Lastly, with the earlier mention of the late, great B.B. King, the musical genre associated with our soulful colour, likely originating from a 17th-century English expression (“the blue devils”) for hallucinations associated with severe alcohol withdrawal, was initially mentioned in the 11 July, 1915 edition of the Chicago Tribune, where it was explained that: “That is what ‘blue’ music is doing for everybody—taking away what its name implies, the blues.”
Looking at the early traditions of Hinduism, it’s only fitting that blue is linked with the throat chakra, which is the primary centre of expression and communication. After all, what other colour could contain such a multitude of different feelings, understandings, and expressions? It’s sad yet hopeful, pure yet obscene, and strong yet tranquil: in other words, it’s the ideal colour for 2020.