My friend Justine (also an Australian) asked me the other day what colour puce is. I’ve read a tonne of Georgette Heyer where it’s a colour that pretty much no one looks any good in, so I had always imagined it was a kind of cacky yellow-brown (on a puce=puke or puce=poo etymological model). It had never occurred to me to look it up. But Justine did. And read that it was a non-saturated red (I forget the whole description), but it sounded like terracotta, which is a lovely colour.
Here’s what the OED says:
puce [pjus], a. (sb.) [a. Fr. puce sb.:-L. plex, -icem a flea; couleur puce flea-colour (17th c.).]
a. attrib. or as adj. (orig. puce colour): Of a flea-colour; purple brown, or brownish purple.
1787 Best Angling (ed. 2) 83 Dip a feather in aqua fortis, put it on the ash,..and it will make it a cinnamon, or rather a puce, or flea colour.
1791 Hamilton tr. Berthollet’s Dyeing I. i. i. ii. 32 Colours inclining to red on the one hand and black on the other, such as mordorÃ© and puce colour.
1820 Chron. in Ann. Reg. 197/2 A rich twilled sarcenet pelisse, of a peuce colour.
1834 Mrs. Carlyle Lett. I. 10 The old black gown (which was dyed puce for me at Dumfries).
1893 J. Ashby Sterry Naughty Girl ix. 79 His puce silk suit, his muslin cravat.
b. As sb. = puce colour.
1882 Garden 16 Sept. 260/1 Blooms of..rich dark puce, suffused with maroon.
1897 Daily News 25 June 2/6 The mountains had all put on..the purple puce of twilight.
1900 F. H. O’F. in Lond. Let. 26 Jan. 133/1 Varying shades..from palest peach to deepest puce.
c. Comb. puce-coloured adj.
1812 Sir H. Davy Chem. Philos. 212 The puce-coloured oxide of lead.
1874 Garrod & Baxter Mat. Med. 410 Cochineal yields when crushed a puce-coloured powder.
That also sounds like a colour that’s all over my wardrobe. A gorgeous colour. Except for the bit about fleas. Flea-coloured? Huh?