Once upon a time, I knew a man who drove a very old, very white station wagon, dating from the early 1960s. He had named the car “Blanche,” and that has long topped my list of clever car names. I’ve always assumed the car was named for Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, but maybe it was simply a way to acknowledge that the car was white. Either way, I find it clever.
Blanche is the feminine form of the French word blanc, meaning white. The color white has different meanings in different cultures, and just like any other color, there are myriad names for varying shades of white.
In western cultures, white represents purity, faith, light, understanding, perfection and cleanliness. It is thought to bring mental clarity, fresh beginnings, and renewal. In some eastern and mid-eastern cultures, white is the color of death, mourning and rebirth. In Buddhism, “white represents knowledge, learning, purity, holiness, longevity and cleanliness. White transforms the delusion of ignorance into the wisdom of reality.” * The bedouin culture believes that white represents gratitude, joy, good fortune and respect.
White has a strong meaning in nearly all religions, where it generally represents purity and holiness. White has been used to represent many socio-political movements, including royalty in general, women’s suffragists, and the Ku Klux Klan. Negative connotations of white, especially in clothing and decor, can be coldness, unfriendliness, isolation, sterility, emptiness, and indecision.
In art and manufacturing, the primary sources for white are lead, zinc and titanium. Lead was used to make white paint from at least the fourth century B.C. until the late 19th century, when people became aware of its toxicity. Titanium produces the brightest and whitest white, and is used in paints, toothpaste and sunscreen. Zinc is also used to make paints, and is used in breakfast cereals.
In nature, we have the dove, the international symbol of peace. The polar bear uses its white coat as a camouflage in its environment. The ermine (or weasel or stoat), has a brown coat in warmer months, which changes to white in winter, also for camouflage.
A few white things: wedding dresses (in western cultures); a white flag, which symbolizes surrender; the White Cliffs of Dover; the Changbai Mountains between China and Korea (changbai means “perpetually white”), as well as Mauna Kea in Hawai’i, and Mont Blanc in France, which both translate to “White Mountain.” We speak of someone who is morally perfect being “pure as the driven snow.”
Other white things:
- whitewash: to cover up or conceal
- white lie: an innocent lie
- white noise: a steady sound to mask other irritating sounds
- white paper: an authoritative report
- white collar: refers to a desk job, as opposed to “blue collar” for a factory job
- white feather: symbolizes cowardice, especially in Great Britain during World War I
- whiteout: zero visibility
- pearly whites: very white teeth
- white sale: a price reduction on household linens
- white knight: someone who comes to the rescue
- white lightning: moonshine, homemade whiskey
- white knuckle: an experience that is dangerous and/or exciting
Here are a few of the many words describing whiteness: snow, pearl, ivory, chalk, milk, lily, seashell, old lace, cream, linen, ghost, alabaster, paper, and frosty, of course!
And finally, white is about winter. In the northern hemisphere, our days are approaching their “shortest” of the year, or the least amount of daylight per day. Thus in some ways this season is about darkness, but I am here today to celebrate the light.
I like to photograph white, as its own subject, and so I bring to you some quiet white for the holidays. Some peace. Some simplicity. A little perfection. A little more imperfection. I offer you white in many of its nuances, including snow and clouds, flowers and leaves, geometry and randomness, perfection and wabi-sabi, all with a few twinkles added to enhance the magic of the season.
*Source: Michelle Radcliffe
What she said
I learned two delicious new morsels about whiteness in my French class last week.
First, our hostess made coffee for us, and two of us had some milk in our coffee. We learned that a common phrase for this is “un nuage de lait,” or “a cloud of milk.” What a poetic way to say it!
Toward the end of that same class, I glanced outside to see what looked very much like the tiniest flakes of snow drifting lazily down from above. I had a moment of vertigo, as I had thought the highs that day would be around sixty degrees (F). In dizzying succession, someone noticed the puzzled look on my face, I pointed out the snowflakes, the flakes became tiny raindrops, and our teacher uttered the following phrase:
Il tombe des pétales de lune.
The moon’s petals are falling.
It turns out that she made up that bit of elegant poetry spontaneously, and I’m going to continue my studies with her.
Brian Andreas of Story People brings us another treat, titled “Joy Cookie” :
In my dream, I was in my grandma’s kitchen & she said What have you done to deserve joy? & I couldn’t come up with anything & she laughed & said let this be a lesson to you & then she gave me a cookie that tasted like salt air & warm sunlight & the quiet you feel when you sit next to the one you love & then I woke up & the first thing I remember thinking was I need to ask for that recipe.
And really, I have nothing to add to that little bite of perfection.
Happy All Holidays to you!