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.