Volume 28, Number 2—February 2022
The Color Puce (Pyüs)
For those with synesthesia, in whom stimulating 1 sensory pathway gives rise to a subjective sensation of a different character, the word plague may chromatically resonate with puce (Figure). In pre-revolutionary France, an era of “evocative color nomenclature,” Marie Antoinette’s reign was precipitating intense criticism. Her countrymen were experiencing severe socioeconomic stress, thus her sartorial self-indulgence was much resented.
After discovering the Queen wearing a new gown, her husband, Louis XVI, the King of France, chided her, describing the dress’s unflattering purple‒brown hue as “couleur de puce” (color of fleas). This admonishment had the unintended consequence of promoting puce as the exclusive color worn by the French court. Puce, the French word for flea, descends from pulex (Latin). Flea droppings leave puce colored “bloodstains” on bedsheets. The role of fleas, however, as a vector for bubonic plague was not proven until about 1895.
- Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. 23rd ed. Baltimore: The Williams & Wilkins Company; 1976. p. 1392.
- St. Clair K. The secret lives of color. New York: Penguin Books; 2017. p. 122‒3.
- Zietz BP, Dunkelberg H. The history of the plague and the research on the causative agent Yersinia pestis. Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2004;207:165–78.
- Plague bacteria found in Arizona fleas, by Rachael Rettner, August 14, 2017 [cited 2021 Nov 4]. https://www.livescience.com/60130-plague-fleas-arizona.html.
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Original Publication Date: January 04, 2022