‘It’s “blue” now; let’s go. You don’t want the car behind us to honk the crap out of you.’
‘Look at the deep “blue” rice field, man. It seems so peaceful and refreshing.’
It’s very common in our society for people from all walks of life to refer to the color “green” in specific contexts as “blue”. Even I myself, despite being aware of this, still occasionally blurt out the “blue that actually means green”. I have absolutely no idea where this came from in the first place, why people use “blue” to describe “green”. They are being selective, too. Not all “green” means “blue”. Even the Khmer words for both colors do not resemble each other at all: Bay-tong (“បៃតង” - if you see squares in between the quotes, that just means you don’t have Khmer Unicode installed in your computer, so don’t freak out) for “green” and Khiev (“ខៀវ”) for “blue”. Another less confusing mix-up is when one describes the color of the sea: some call it “blue”, while others call it “green”, when it’s in fact more like a combination of both - as in “turquoise”. (I’m not sure if any Khmer would use “turquoise” to describe the color of the sea.)
Another area of color-language confusion concerns the “orange” color. Non-Khmer people sometimes ask why we call our orange juice “orange” when it’s in fact “yellow”. In our local language, the color “orange” literally translates to “the color of orange juice” (“ពណ៌ទឹកក្រូច” - Por Teuk-kroj). I mean, it would make sense for the Westerners to call orange juice “orange” simply because the two elements share the same colors. But well, it doesn’t seem to be the case here, I know. And to add a bit more confusion to this culture-related linguistic difference, the locals call soda (like Pepsi, Coca Cola, Sprite, etc.) “orange juice” or “orange”, too, despite the different colors - save for Miranda or Fanta! I’m no expert in history, but given the heavy French influence back from mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, I think it might be safe to say our connotations of “orange” have elements of Westernization. (After all, their oranges were definitely “orange”, so was the color of their orange juice. Besides, they could’ve been part of those people who imported the whole range of sodas into Cambodia and its culture as well. AND, I personally believe the gaseous, sour hints in sodas might’ve had something to do with the locals calling those sodas “orange” or “orange juice” as well.) Anyway, I later found out that the elders (and some people in my age group) use the term “ripe yellow” (“លឿងទុំ” - Leung Tum) to describe the “orange” color.
Now comes “brown”. Interestingly, “brown” in our language (“ប្រផេះ” - Bror-phes) either means “chocolate brown” or “gray”. Some people do try to distinguish “brown” from “gray”, though - some use “chocolate color” (“ពណ៌សូកូឡា” - Por Sokola) to mean “brown”, while some others use “color of a rat” (“ពណ៌កណ្តុរប្រម៉េះ” - Por Kondoar-Bror-mes) to describe “gray”. I guess that makes sense, right? Now, here’s another interesting bit: In our language, “ash” is called Phes (“ផេះ”), and ash has the gray color, so…maybe Cambodian “Bror-phes” means “gray”, not “brown”. And finally, eye color. It’s common for English speakers to call someone’s eyes “brown” if those eyes are of actual brown color. But “brown” eyes are not common among Cambodians - or at least the “light brown” kind. If someone has dark brown eyes here, people use the “color of palm fruit” (“ពណ៌ត្នោត” - Por Tnoat) to describe it. After all, the skin of palm fruit has that dark shade of brown, right?. I, however, have a pair of brown eyes - I don’t know where I’ve inherited them from since both of my parents don’t have light brown eyes - and people would normally call them “Bror-phes” (as mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph) presumably meaning “chocolate color” and not “gray”. Again, this whole thing can be pretty culturally contextual!
(And if that’s not confusing enough, a lot of us call our palm sugar “red” sugar (“ស្ករក្រហម” - Skor Kror-hom), not “brown” sugar, despite the obviously brown color. How about that?)
Some of you who read this would say, “this is confusing as hell!”, and it certainly is! It’s just that we the locals don’t really have any problem with this simply because we’ve grown up accustomed to this color system. We know what other Cambodians mean when “blue”, “green”, “orange”, “brown”, “gray”, or “red” are used, whether they are referring to the actual color palettes or their “cultural” versions. But I can’t say the same for the non-Cambodians who are learning our language. More interactions with the locals could definitely help lessen this confusion, I’m sure.
So next time you hear a local Cambodian screaming out “blue” at the “green” light, know that he/she is not a lunatic. (Unless the person is medically proven so. In that case, well, you’re screwed for being on the road with him/her.)