The Meaning of Brown - the Colour of the Earth

Jan 17 2013

“Moralistic is not moral. And as for truth - well it’s like brown - it’s not in he spectrum. Truth is so generic.”  - Iris Murdoch

“I cannot pretend to feel impartial about colours. I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.”  - Winston Churchill

Brown is the colour of the earth, especially ploughed land and soil and even the parched earth of a desert. Brown occurs naturally in earth, clay, trees (trunks and roots) and autumn leaves, and is common in seeds, rocks, minerals, nuts, insects, fish, reptiles, birds and animals as well as human skin, hair and eyes.

It is associated with the earth, home and hearth, comfort, endurance and simplicity, democracy, stability, reliability and approachability. Brown is associated with all things natural and organic, providing a feeling of wholesomeness and a connection with the earth. It is a very ‘grounded’ colour. These associations in turn mean that brown is a colour of dependability, durability, security, friendliness, warmth, hominess, informality, richness, heaviness, dullness, lack of humour and lack of sophistication (and plain speaking). Lighter versions of brown (beige) are smooth, soft and tasty.

The associations with reliability have been leveraged by brands including UPS who even write the colour into their tagline, “What can brown do for you?” and have registered it as a trademark.

Brown is the colour of chocolate and coffee, as well as ‘chestnuts’ including those that get roasted at Christmas. And who could forget that brown is the colour of beer!

‘Brown’ sugar is partially refined and a brownout is a partial loss of electric power. Brown itself is a partial red or orange, muted in its impact (as Churchill says, “the poor browns”).

Having said that, there is very little partial in the Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar” (about the combination of drugs and girls and from the Sticky Fingers album). There are many great (and personal favourite) songs which mention brown, including the Stones, Van Morrison (“Brown Eyed Girl”), and Crystal Gayle (“Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue”).

Brown is associated with army uniforms, camouflage and war as well as its more homely meanings. Despite being the colour of democracy, brown is also associated with fascism and Hitler. As a colour, brown always has the ability to degrade and bastardise other brighter colour, and it is said that sadists like brown. Of course, we should mention that brown is the colour of excrement.

Brown and tan have been seen as the colours of the common people for some time. In Ancient Rome and later the Catholic Church, brown was the colour of humility and also poverty, inspiring many orders to wear brown homespun cloth to symbolise renunciation and penitence. St Francis os Assisi is always depicted in brown (as painted by Giotto below). He always insisted that personal and institutional poverty was essential for the lifestyle of members of his order, and wore brown to demonstrate his detachment from vanity (he was the son of a rich cloth merchant).

St Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire) by Giotto di Bondone

For Christians, brown is also the colour of spiritual death and degradation. In India, brown is one of the colours of mourning, and for the Chinese, brown is associated with the Song dynasty which had many accomplishments including the invention of gunpowder, issuing the first banknotes or paper money in history and establishing a permanent navy.

Emperor Taizu of Song

As the colour of dead leaves and Autumn, brown is often seen as a melancholy colour (the colour of Autumn is far from melancholy although the onset of Winter is). In Ireland, brown has many of the same meanings as black, linked to the underworld and war.

In Japanese there is no word for brown, and is replaced by terms such as ‘tea colour’ and ‘fallen leaf’. Japanese admire brown as a natural colour, and ‘earth’ tones are part of the shibui tradition. Wooden houses continue to be popular in Japan.

In summary, brown is the colour of the earth, wholesome, natural, and grounded in the real world. It is the colour of the common man.

3 responses so far

  1. Very informative and knowledgeble …loved the extent to which Semiotics has been used to decode the colour codes.

  2. [...] to the color brown? Why? Check out this great article from Inspector Insight on this color: The Meaning of Brown: The Colour of Earth. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like Loading… Categories: Journaling, Resources, [...]

  3. Do not look down on the color brown. It is a secret color so if you do, you may not find its secret forever. I won’t tell you!

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