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 mordoré 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?


  1. lili on #

    puce means flea in french. lots of people made puns about joan of arc in her day, because she was known as ‘la pucelle’: the maid/virgin. but her enemies called her ‘la puce’: the flea.

    and so endeth the lesson.

  2. David Moles on #

    Whoa. I’ve been sure all my life it was a kind of pale bilious green. I knew I shouldn’t have skipped the assignment in my freshman year creative writing contest where the instructor told all the guys to go out to either a fabric store or a flower store and learn about colors….

  3. deborahb on #

    Flea coloured? I would’ve said a kind of purple, & on reflection yes, a kind of brownish purple perfectly describes the colour in my head.

  4. Shelly Rae on #

    The link may just be one of those quirky linguist ones but I’d read that puce was the color of fleas. Puce colored fabrics were chosen by people who frequently had fleas and did not want them to show…which is to say, just about everyone in the not so distant past (and a few even today!). With fleas, it is not simply the insect itself that is annoying, but the “dirt” they create. In other words “flea poop” that contains digested blood which will stain clothing. Hence, puce.
    See? All those years of studying medieval lit do come in handy sometimes!

  5. Tess on #

    Well…those are some pretty fashion conscious fleas then.

  6. ron on #

    know you’re busy an’ all… but when you get a chance, I think we should re-open the discussions regarding puce.

    I know that the historical origins were worked over and the flea blood/shit thang was put forward and everyone was fairly happpy with that and it seemed to be the end of the discussion…

    but I don’t think that’s all there is.

    I think the actual colour changed – and relatively quickly in hostorical terms – and became something else entirely.

    certainly now – according to richard (source: decorator and paint
    charts) and leanne (source: printers’ colour guides) – it’s either
    either a cherry-ish red or an orange-y pink.

    but even as far back as heyer’s georgian setings i think it had already taken this road. whenever it’s used in her works it either – if used in the
    context of a male wearing it suggest dandyism or effeminacy – or when a woman is involved it seems to be vulgarity or a younger girl wearing something showy and inappropriate.

    neither suggest a sedate flea blood/shit purple-y brown to this little black duck.

    i think we need a whole social history here. could be a great idea for a thesis… or maybe a popular history volume to supplement that wonderful book “mauve” from a few years back – (tho’ doubt one could find that puce made nearly as earth-shattering an
    impact as that aforementioned shade of purple! astonishing!)

    one way or another, it aint over yet.

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