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Do Americans say purple or violet?

Colors are an important part of how we see and describe the world. But different cultures and languages divide up the color spectrum in different ways. This leads to interesting variations in color words between languages. In American English, we make a distinction between the colors “purple” and “violet” that isn’t made in many other varieties of English.

In American English, purple and violet are considered two distinct colors. Purple refers to a color that is a mix of red and blue, while violet is more of a bluish/purple color on the spectrum between blue and red. But in many other dialects of English, like British English, there isn’t a strong distinction made between these two color terms. Violet may be considered just a shade of purple, rather than its own separate color.

This difference highlights the subjective and cultural nature of color categorization. The way we label colors is not objectively determined by the wavelengths of light. Different cultures divide up the color spectrum in different ways according to their cultural, historical, and linguistic conventions. So an American might insist that violet and purple are totally different, while someone from the UK would see them as much more similar. Neither is necessarily “right” – it’s just a difference in color terminology.

In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at the American distinction between purple and violet. We’ll explore where this difference comes from, how it’s reflected in American English descriptions of color, and why many other native English speakers don’t make the same color distinction.

The origins of “purple” and “violet” in English

The word “purple” has been part of the English language for many centuries. It traces back to the ancient Greek word “porphyra” which referred to a type of purple-colored mollusk shellfish that was used to create a vivid purple dye. This dye was highly prized in ancient times as a symbol of royalty and wealth, as seen in the purple robes worn by kings and emperors.

The word “violet,” on the other hand, came into English more recently, in the 18th century. It derives from the name of the violet flower, which had long been associated with blue and purple hues. Early uses of “violet” in English referred specifically to a bluish-purple color related to the common violet flower. Over time, it gained currency as the name for a distinct shade between blue and purple.

So while “purple” has ancient roots in English tied to royal purple dyes, “violet” entered the language much later as a more specific color term referring to a lighter purple/blue shade. This may be part of why the two colors came to be seen as distinct in American usage.

How American English distinguishes “purple” and “violet”

Most native American English speakers consider purple and violet to be two very different colors. In American color terminology:

  • Purple is a secondary color, made by mixing red and blue.
  • Violet is a spectral color, meaning it corresponds to a specific wavelength of light on the visible spectrum, between blue and purple.

Some key distinctions:

Purple Violet
Reddish/blue mix More blueish
Royal, rich Pale, delicate
Creative, mystical Spiritual, calming

Americans also associate purple and violet with different objects, for example:

Purple things Violet things
Grapes Violets
Eggplant Lavender
Amethyst Iris

So in American color vocabulary, purple and violet occupy distinct places. Violet has a lighter, cooler, more delicate identity compared to the richer, blended reddish/bluish purple.

British and other English dialects group them together

While American English draws a firm line between purple and violet, many other native English language cultures do not. In particular:

  • British English uses “purple” and “violet” interchangeably
  • Australian, New Zealand, and South African English also tend to treat them as versions of the same color

For example, in British English, violet can simply refer to a lighter or desaturated shade of purple. It is not necessarily considered a separate spectral color the way American English defines it. Colors like lavender, lilac, and mauve may all be grouped under “violet” as varieties of purple.

So an American might describe something as distinctly “violet” rather than “purple,” while a Brit would call it “purple” or possibly “light purple.” Neither usage is right or wrong – they simply reflect different cultural color associations.

Why did this difference develop?

It’s not entirely clear why American English developed this firm distinction between purple and violet while British English did not. There are a few possible contributing factors:

  • Influence of Newton’s color studies – In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton identified violet as a distinct color in his experiments with prisms. This may have led to a separate vocabulary term becoming established in American usage.
  • Marketing and fashion trends – Early 20th century trends and advertising in America establishment violet as a fashionable pastel color, which may have led to its differentiation from traditional purple.
  • Less blue/purple distinction in British English – British English has historically had less distinction between blue and blue-purple colors, with many shades grouped under “blue.”

However, exactly why Americans clung to the purple/violet distinction while British English did not is unclear. It may relate to subtle cultural associations and fashions that diverged over decades of English language evolution on separate continents.

How do other cultures distinguish purple and violet?

The American distinction between purple and violet is by no means universal across cultures and languages. Here are some interesting examples of how other languages draw shades of purple:

  • Japanese – Makes a three-way distinction between murasaki (purple), suri-iro (violet) and ai-iro (indigo).
  • Russian – Has separate words for fioletovyi (violet) and lilovyi (purple).
  • Korean – boja refers to violet while jajok refers to purple.
  • Finnish – uses purple for purppura and violet for violetti.

So the American two-term system is not the only way. Some cultures use a single broad term for purple while others make even more distinctions between shades such as indigo and lilac. The American purple/violet difference is an interesting example of the nuances that arise in color lexicons.

Recent shifts

In the past few decades, the hard distinction between purple and violet has begun to blur a bit even in American English. With growing cultural globalization and information sharing on the internet, many Americans have become aware that Brits see the colors as much more interchangeable. As a result, some definitions have become somewhat less rigid. Now it’s more common to see “violet” referred to as a “shade of purple” even in American sources. And the term “purple” has expanded for many speakers to encompass lighter, bluer shades that might traditionally have been considered violet. So we may see the American and British uses converging a bit in the future.


The curious distinction between purple and violet in American English reveals how seemingly objective colors are shaped by cultural perception. While Americans insist on a purple/violet difference that Brits don’t recognize, neither view is wrong. Color vocabularies reflect how cultures categorize the world, not objective truths. So whether you say purple or violet for a light bluish purple shade ultimately comes down to the unique quirks of your own language community and history.

But it’s fun to appreciate how this subtle naming difference developed between two closely related English dialects. Examining our own color words provides insight into how we divide up and mentally organize the endlessly nuanced color spectrum. The vocabulary we use to identify colors may seem simple on the surface, but it encodes cultural ideas and assumptions that reveal a great deal about how we perceive the world.