In the textbook this week was a section on what the authors called ‘collocations’ and ‘word pairs’, though I not convinced that those are very good terms for what the section was about. One circle on the page contained the words ‘lemon, butter, knife, backwards, quiet, breakfast, thunder, black’ and another ‘white, fork, peace, forwards, lightning, bread, ice, bed’, and the first task was to make eight three-word phrases with ‘and’ in the middle of each. There are many and various reasons why one word is habitually placed first and the other second. Following on from ‘black and white’, I decided to test them on different colours. I can’t remember all of the pairs they suggested, but there’s definitely cultural associations. When I said ‘green and _’ a Pakistani student said ‘white’ (which he explained as ‘the colours of the Pakistani flag’) and a Taiwanese woman who’s been living in Australia for four years said ‘yellow’ (‘the Australian sporting colours’).
This got me thinking about which colours pair with which other colours most often, and at home I started searching online. According to Google Ngrams:
black and *: white, red, blue, yellow, brown, gold, grey, green
white and *: black, red, blue, yellow, green, colored, gold, brown, Negro
yellow and *: red, blue, white, green, black, orange, brown, purple
orange and *: yellow, red, black, lemon, blue, green, white, purple, citron
red and *: white, green, blue, yellow, black, gold, swollen, purple, brown
purple and *: white, gold, green, yellow, red, blue, scarlet, fine, crimson
blue and *: white, green, red, yellow, gold, purple, black, silver, violet
green and *: blue, yellow, white, red, gold, brown, black, purple, pleasant
brown and *: white, black, yellow, green, red, gray, grey, blue, dry
(Other results include ‘[colour] and a’ and ‘[colour] and the’.)
Notable are the results which are not colours: ‘white and colored *’ is primarily about racial politics, but the results for ‘white and coloured *’ include ‘marbles’, ‘marble’ and ‘glass’, so is also about actual colours; ‘white and Negro’ is definitely about racial politics (surprisingly, lower-case ‘w’ and upper-case ‘N’ occurs more often than any other combination). ‘Orange and lemon’ and ‘orange and citron’ are primarily about fruits. ‘Red and swollen‘ is about health. ‘Purple and fine‘ comes from the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19: ‘There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen.’ (KJV; many later translations retain ‘purple and fine linen’ among differences in the rest of the sentence). ‘Green and pleasant’ comes from the poem by William Blake popularly called ‘Jerusalem’: ‘I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land.’ (Blake’s poem is untitled; Parry’s anthem is titled ‘Jerusalem‘. Blake also wrote a longer poem titled ‘Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion‘, which is the inspiration for a brand-new orchestral work by the Luxembourgish-Australian composer Georges Lentz.) ‘Brown and dry’ does not seem to have any immediate source; ‘brown and dry land’ returned no results.
White is the most common pair, appearing with black in both orders, and second with red, purple, blue and brown. Orange most commonly pairs with yellow, and yellow with red, but red with white (for reasons which will become obvious later). Green most commonly pairs with blue, but blue with white (again, later). All up, in either or both orders, white, yellow, red, blue and green pair up with all the other colours, black does not pair with purple, gold does not pair with yellow or orange, purple not with black, white and brown, and brown not with orange, purple or blue. Grey/gray pairs second with black and brown, scarlet and crimson with purple, and silver and violet with blue. Possibly significantly, the six most common colours match with the first six ‘universal colours’ of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution). Their next colours are brown, purple, pink (which does not appear in any pair here), orange and gray/grey.
Searching for four-word strings with the most-common colour pair each time shows the many different areas of human life in which those colour pairs are found:
black and white *: photographs, stripes, marble (among ‘black and white and/or’, ‘black and white is/are’ and ‘black and white in/of/on’)
white and black *: races, people, children, workers, men, alike, marble
yellow and red *: flowers, light, colours, ochre, rays
orange and yellow *: flowers, light, pigments, rays
red and white *: blood (cells) (which is why yellow is not the most common pair for red to match ‘yellow and red’), stripes, wines, wine, roses, (blood, again) cells, marble, corpuscles (blood, for the third time), lead (electrical and/or the chemical element?)
purple and white *: flowers, stripes, lilacs, violets, silk, blossoms, grapes, rock
blue and white *: striped, porcelain and china (which is why green is not the most common pair for blue to match ‘green and blue’), stripes, flowers, tiles, cotton, beads
green and blue *: light, filters, lights, carbonates, rays
brown and white *: dog, sugar, stripes, striped, bread, spaniel, colour
[added the next day: Today I accidentally found the technical term ‘binomial‘ (which I knew from maths but not in linguistics) and later less accidentally found the non-technical term ‘Siamese twin‘ (which I knew from history and general knowledge but not in linguistics). I’m not sure that either of them is a particularly good term, either).