The Color of Names
To guest blogger Kaitlin (Greyer) and others who share her synesthesia, every name has a distinctive color, shape and texture; a fascinating condition she describes for us here.
It seemed an unlikely place for this to happen.
As I recall, I was fifteen years old – sitting in the booth of a local Burger King with my mother as we picked at our burgers and fries, too hot to really eat anything; it was mid-June or July. I had just begun to dabble in my name obsessions, collecting baby name books when I could find them cheap and carefully recording list after list in blank notebooks. It was no surprise to my mother, then, that the unique name of the clerk – Turquoise – had caught my eye. The sound of this name sent a jolt of crimson color straight to my brain. As we sat in the back of the store, talking quietly, I turned to my mother and said:
“Mom, do you ever, like, see a color in your head when you hear a word or a name?”
She paused. Then: “Yes,” she said. “I named you Kaitlin because it’s bright yellow and it makes me think of sunshine. It’s a happy color; I wanted you to be happy.”
“But Kaitlin isn’t yellow,” protested my fifteen-year-old self. “It’s pale lavender and grey, the color of a pearl.” She nodded. “I guess our colors are different.”
This is how it began. We started with her name, my name, the names of my father, grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, and cousins, comparing our respective colors for each. Mom told me about the colors of her current favorite names and the colors of the names she’d considered for me. It developed into a special connection between us, as well as a sort of game: whenever we checked out at a department store or restaurant, we would make special note of the name tag of the person waiting on us. As soon as they were out of earshot, we’d each blurt out a color. “Jane” was chartreuse or eggplant, “Michael” pumpkin or scarlet. Gradually, we discovered that her colors were just that – colors, as though suspended in water or hanging in the air. My colors, on the other hand, had depth. I have a sense of whether a name moves left or right, up or down in my head, or whether it is static. If the name has a dimension, I can describe that, too: some names, like Ella, are two-dimensional, a sheet of colored paper. Others, such as Oliver, are domed; some are even complete spheres. Most names have a texture, often best compared to fabrics, but Christopher is smooth and shiny like the skin of a fruit, and Lydia is sandy and cratered, akin to the face of the moon.
Of course this only fueled my name obsession. Around this time, the internet made its way into our house, and I discovered the wonderful world of online naming. Hundreds of textures and colors swam in my head, more than I could ever hope to keep track of. I decided to try and record the color and feel of each name on a master list, but later discovered how unnecessary that was: no matter how many times the name Susannah pops into my head, it is always bright yellow-green with watercolor spots of dark purple. Henry, likewise, will always be turquoise and navy; Catherine perpetually a dusty powder pink.
Knowing that my mother and I shared this unique ability is the only thing that kept me from wondering if I hadn’t gone entirely insane. I was never brave enough to bring it up to anyone else, not until much later. After all, I was still in high school, and I was unpopular enough; I didn’t need to be crazy, too. It was in my school library that I actually discovered the answer to the color phenomenon – in the form of a book called A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass. The story of a teenage girl who saw colors and shapes in response to sound was familiar to me; I had to read it! And it was in this book that I realized there was a name for what I had. The disorder is called synesthesia, and it is uncommon, but not unheard of. Musicians John Mayer and Pharrell Williams have synesthesia, as did Russian author Vladimir Nabokov and inventor Nikolai Tesla. Research now shows that as many as 1 in every 23 people may have some form of synesthesia; however it’s a difficult disorder to diagnose and track.
When it comes to naming with synesthesia, these are the questions that I get asked frequently:
How does synesthesia work?
It’s different for everyone, but for me, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to saying the name out loud. When I read the name, nothing really happens, it’s just there. I have to actually say the name to myself, and as soon as I do that, I see the color of the name for a few seconds.
Do you actually see the color in front of you, or is it just in your head?
I see the color in my head, I guess! It feels like the color is just behind my eyes, if that makes sense.
What about names that you don’t like, but have pretty colors?
I wouldn’t use the name Ailsa, for example, but I love the way it looks in my head – chartreuse green and dark grey, two of my favorite colors!
Are there any names that are really ugly to you?
No, not really! I try to be objective, all names are good in different ways.
Since I “came out” about my synesthesia, so many people have told me how lucky I am to have it, and I have to agree! I love it and wouldn’t have me any other way.
Kaitlin (Greyer) is a long-time “name nerd” and a member of the nameberry community. She is 20 years old, and is a student at Lehigh Carbon Community College in Pennsylvania with a major in early childhood education.
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on June 23rd, 2010 at 11:45 pm
What colors do these names make you think of?
on June 23rd, 2010 at 11:57 pm
Oh, I am exactly the same way! Penelope, for instance, is purple, while Phoebe is a nice lavender shade. Anything that begins with a C is a warm, golden-y yellow, and anything beginning with a K is pink! Daisy is light blue (as are most D names for me- Dashiell, Duncan, Dalton, Delilah). Ella, Eleanor, Genevieve, and Gertrude are all a rich, emerald green, whilst Rebecca, Rachel, Rowan, Sally, and Samantha (and other S and R names) are a fierce red!
I do the same thing with numbers, haha. Like 8 is blue, 3 is red, etc.
Very cool blog!
on June 24th, 2010 at 1:36 am
I tend to do that too, though it’s not always color. Sometimes it’s a taste or smell It’s even been feelings, like a sharp feeling or a dull bump feeling, sometimes textures, and most things, not just names, have one or more of these traits to me.
I agree, very cool blog!! 🙂
on June 24th, 2010 at 1:38 am
For me, number also have genders…. Like 5 is male and six is a female, 7 is also female, and 8 is a male…
on June 24th, 2010 at 6:19 am
I confused my mum with this so much when I was little and asked her what colour the days of the week were.
Mine are usually linked to the letters involved and the sounds they make. F words are usually a shade of blue, M’s mostly red, S and C are often yellow and T’s are green. There are more than that but those ones are very distinct.
Green and Purple have a habit of coming together in a name, constantly filtering and hard to focus on like ripples on water. Others start one colour and end another based on the sound of the syllables or the letters.
on June 24th, 2010 at 8:27 am
I have had sort of the same thing since I was young. Carla is pink, Rachel is a slate grate, Ophelia is violet.
on June 24th, 2010 at 9:23 am
I can’t believe there is someone like me, at last! I’ve seldom talked about it to family and friends. My mom doesn’t share this condition, only a friend understands what I see.
I’m like your mother, I don’t see textures and depth in names, only names in ‘fat’ coloured letters hanging in my head! Elisa, my sister’s name, is pale yellow and pink, my name, Eleonora (I’m from Italy) is red with brown spots.
I’ve often wondered why I only see colours on proper names and not, for example, in names of objects, nature and animals…
on June 24th, 2010 at 10:08 am
It’s strange to me that it is considered a disorder. It seems more like a gift! Does it ever seem like a nuisance to have?
on June 24th, 2010 at 10:23 am
What a beautiful gift. You should start a topic so people can ask you what color you see names as.
on June 24th, 2010 at 11:00 am
This is so weird, because my name is also Kaitlin and I have very similar experiences with synesthesia and names!
on June 24th, 2010 at 11:31 am
Wow– I’ve heard of this before but never from the perspective of someone who has it. Fascinating… the only thing I can compare it to is some degree of familiarity I have the first time I meet people. I can somehow instantly “sense” whether their face feels familiar to me and whether they’re going to be an important part of my life. It’s strange… but now I wish I had the same color vibe you’ve got. 🙂
on June 24th, 2010 at 11:56 am
I saw your post on the boards, but I’m glad you got your own blog post – I think of it like a cool superpower. Way better than mine, which ranges from finding the only lego on the floor with barefeet to an overactive imagination. 🙂
Emmy Jo Said
on June 24th, 2010 at 12:04 pm
What a lovely blog! I love your writing style, Kaitlin.
I do not have synesthesia, but I remember teaching a first-grader with the condition. She had come into my classroom after school to help me mount some art projects on construction paper so I could display them on the wall. I told her to pick a color construction paper that would look good against the picture. As we were working, I mused aloud, “What color should use for Rachel’s? I’m thinking blue. She has a lot of blue in the picture.” The student replied, “No, Rachel is an orange name. You should put her painting on orange paper.”
I am always a little curious what those with synesthesia see when they hear my son’s name. I wonder if it’s pretty, or if it clashes!
on June 24th, 2010 at 12:06 pm
I don’t have synesthesia, but a lot of names and numbers do have definite colors– most C names, for example, are sandy orange, and S names like Seraphina are bright red. I read A Mango Shaped Space a while ago, and thought it was fascinating!
on June 24th, 2010 at 12:13 pm
I also have synesthesia, but did not discover the name until my psychology 101 course! You are so lucky to have shared this unique gift (I refuse to call it a disorder) with your mother. My parents thought I was just being dramatic, and I thought I was crazy. I remember being very frustrated in kindergarten when the alphabet on the wall had the letters in the “wrong” colors.
Unlike you, I see every letter and number and word and name in its color(s) while written as well as spoken. I also see colors when I hear music. It has definitely shaped my likes and dislikes both in music and names. For example, I’ve always disliked the color purple, which may be why I’m not fond of “K” names, since K is purple to me.
Do you have it with music, too? I think this gift is why I love music so much. Different instruments, tempos, and styles affect the colors, and they kind of wash over me like watercolors as I listen.
on June 24th, 2010 at 12:23 pm
I do that too. I never knew there was a name for it. But I have to agree with your mother, Kaitlin isn’t pale to me at all. It’s kind of orange.
on June 24th, 2010 at 12:57 pm
Thank you everyone for your comments! I love reading them. As someone who has always wanted to be a writer, it’s just thrilling to see people responding to something I’ve written! :o)
I had to respond to Linelei in particular — I do also have synesthesia with music! Just not with letters or numbers. Although some random words have color to me (‘the’ is chartreuse and ‘cling’ is magenta, for example) most do not. But it does shape my taste in music, though not my taste in names.
Anyone with a question about synesthesia or names, or ANYTHING can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d love to hear from you!
on June 24th, 2010 at 1:14 pm
You know, I wonder if maybe there is a larger-than-normal percentage of name nerds with synesthesia. Perhaps the colors and emotions that are associated with synesthesia create a stronger emotional response to names. Something to think about and maybe research (I’m a psych major). Thanks, Kaitlin, for bringing up this topic! It’s given me a lot to think about.
on June 24th, 2010 at 1:44 pm
I have a different type of synesthesia- when I hear music, I can feel it. But my brother not only has the same type as me, but also has this type, where he associates letters, numbers, and words with colors. His letters and numbers also have personalities. I always wished I had this type, too.
on June 24th, 2010 at 1:51 pm
Yeah, I get this. It usually corresponds with the first letter of the name – E names are pink, A names are white, S is yellow, I is blue, O is black. I sometimes get it with other words too but names, for some reason, are a lot stronger – maybe because they have no real meaning (other than the person they’re attached to) to drown them out.
Unlike the OP, though, I need to see them written down. The sounds don’t do much for me. When I say things I see them spelled out, anyway.
I always thought my name, Emma, was too girly because it’s pink.
I think you’ll find a lot of people like this on name boards. I’m pretty sure it’s the reason I like names so much and I’m sure other people are the same.
I don’t think it’s all that weird, really. I did see one guy on TV whose life was ruined by his synaesthesia so I think disorder is probably a better word than ‘gift’.
Boston Girl Said
on June 24th, 2010 at 2:22 pm
I have only a very small touch of synesthesia — that is, only a few names call colors to mind for me. Susan is blue, Maureen is green with a little blue mixed in. I don’t really see other names in colors though, they’re just sounds for the most part. I haven’t always had these sensations, though, so maybe as I get older, other names will take on colors!
on June 24th, 2010 at 5:11 pm
This is so great! I’m not like you entirely, I hear different piano keys when I hear a name! (I’m a singer) If anyone knows what that is, please let me know!
on June 24th, 2010 at 5:14 pm
I dont have synesthesia but i read A Mango Shaped Space and i have to say it was fascinating and amazing! you should read it!!!!
Pamela Redmond Satran Said
on June 24th, 2010 at 5:29 pm
There is also a new novel called something like The Unbearable Sadness of Lemon Cake.
http://pencilsandwhatnot.wordpress.com/ (Auburn) Said
on June 24th, 2010 at 6:11 pm
Well, I think of all the ‘disorders’ to have, this might be the only one I wish I did!
If you’re reading this, Kaitlin, I have a question – would all names have colours to you? Even a totally unfamiliar name from different culture, would that still prompt a colour for you?
Thank you for such a fascinating blog! You’ve inspired me to go and learn more about synesthesia, it seems like such an interesting anomaly.
on June 24th, 2010 at 7:09 pm
To those talking about how it ties with music- are any of you trained musicians as well? I am, and a handful of the musicians I know associate a specific colour with a specific note and can then identify notes by their colour… in music the people who can identify a note simply by hearing it (without seeing music or looking at the instrument playing) often refer to it as “perfect pitch”, and I’d never heard of an actual clinical condition/disorder/gift that could be related! I’m going to end up putting a lot of time into researching this!
on June 25th, 2010 at 8:38 pm
Jennifer- I am a trained singer, so perhaps these studies are true!
One of the reasons I dislike Tallulah is that the notes are so menacing in my head! Crazy! Gwendolyn is perfect. 🙂
Charlotte Vera Said
on June 26th, 2010 at 5:10 am
Very, very cool blog! I have the form of synesthesia where I see numbers as characters with stories. In school, this helped with simple things like addition but really got in the way of algebra! Occasionally I get synesthetic responses to music, but they always seem to be negative (I get angry and go “blind” — the world blacks out — for certain sounds).
Your form of synesthesia is fascinating and definitely enviable!
on June 26th, 2010 at 8:03 am
Wow so what I have actually has a name??
I see colours when I hear names (Elizabeth is light blue, Avery forest green, Cornelia is purple and Amelia is bright yellow for instance), and I can ‘see’ music when I hear it – different colours, all moving with the speed and the notes of the composition (if that makes any sense lol).
on June 26th, 2010 at 9:02 am
Oh wow! I have finally put a name to what I have! I as well see colours and textures and even feel moods that automatically relate to names for me. It just comes to me as well. But it’s not just for names, I also associate colours with letters and numbers and even just regular words in general.
It’s funny though, because as I was reading your blog, the colours I associate with the names you used as examples were different from yours. Much like the situation with your mother. For example, with Kaitlin I see more of a burnt, sunburst orange. And Michael is more of a mid-night blue, not red! For my name, Hana, it has always been light pale greens, pinks and blues.
Weirdly, I picked up on it from a very young age. When I was little, I gave each of my family members a “favourite” colour that they just had to love, and I based it of the colours I associated with their names. For me it has always been green. With my grandmother (Vera) she has always been a dark, commanding plum.
This was a very cool blog and now I’m going to go read A Mango Shaped Space.
on June 27th, 2010 at 10:31 pm
I don’t see colors for names, but I do taste flavors. Such as:
Henry – cream of celery soup
Alice – Waldorf salad
Barbara – chocolate
Ellen – lemon jello
Peter – creamed corn
Teresa – cake with frosting
Amanda – gingersnaps (no, my real name is not Amanda)
This has been happening all my life, and I actually don’t know people having all of these names, so it has nothing to do with associating a person named Teresa who I saw eating cake, or Alice who made waldorf salad. It’s just a thing I have.
on July 1st, 2010 at 2:44 pm
Oh wow, yes! I love how many synesthetes are here! (It’s worth mentioning that it’s a lot more common in women than men, and is often passed from mother to daughter!) My mom, myslef, and my maternal grandmother have it, don’t know yet if my younger sister does, and the men in my family think we’re crazy.
Comparing name and word colours, and letters and numbers, is one of my favourite things to do! Letters, numbers, words, and names all have colours for me, and many have genders and even personalities and personifications!
I’ve always found other types of synethesia so interesting, because while I couldn’t imagine my life without this kneejerk experience of colours and yet I can’t possibly imagine what it would be like to have a kneejerk taste, or to have shapes appear in my field of vision!
on July 9th, 2010 at 6:25 pm
What a great blog! I read A Mango-Shaped Space in 8th grade and, after suggesting it to my girlfriend, she found out that what she had was synesthesia and not craziness. ^^
on July 12th, 2010 at 1:28 pm
I think I may have a mild form of this; in my mind, four is blue and five is red which is perfect because nine is purple!
Stephen Paul Said
on October 22nd, 2010 at 1:39 pm
I don’t see colors with names, but maybe because I’m a man. I did make a video that show how to pick colors for baby rooms. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4e7XIZkm_Fk
But I didn’t think at the time to consider if names have a particular color significance. This was a really fun article.
on November 4th, 2012 at 5:59 pm
I see pictures with names. For example, with Felicity I see a yellow house and green grass – it’s a picture in my mind of a place I’ve been with a little girl called Felicity. Awesome blog! I agree with many above posters that synesthesia doesn’t seem like a disorder at all.
on January 1st, 2013 at 4:25 pm
Wow! I am so fascinated to find that others have this, too! I didn’t know it had a name, but I don’t like to think of it as a disorder 🙁
I see colors for days of the week, months, numbers, letters, some words and all names – and the colors of names change when they are combined with a middle name, for example: On their own, Sebastian is a beautiful turquoise, and Cruz is deep indigo, but when placed together “Sebastian Cruz” Sebastian stays turquoise, but Cruz turns bright orange. It’s a beautiful color combination.
I always have had this since I can remember. I just assumed it had something to do with being an artist, although my husband thinks I have some type of OCD (I disagree!)
I hope no one thinks I’m crazy (as I am quite normal usually!), but I’ll share some of my other weird quirks that are probably related to this:
I draw the sounds of names, which is super hard to describe, but every name has a different design that correlates to the sounds within it. Each name is quite beautiful drawn out.
I trace words with my fingers that others are speaking as they are speaking them. I say fingers (plural) because I am usually drawing the words with both index fingers making mirrored images of the words I am hearing – I seem to only do this in cursive.
I trace objects, and faces (I often find my index finger discreetly following along. Usually no one notices but it can be really awkward when I’m tracing someone’s face and they ask me what I am doing, lol).
I am also always counting things (like telephone poles that I pass while driving, tiles on the floor, etc.).
None of this is done obsessively, nor do I need to do it, I just find myself doing it naturally all the time! My mom does some of this, too, so it must be hereditary.
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