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The Debunker: What Color Is Puce?

by Ken Jennings

February means Fashion Week in New York, where style trends are born and the newest looks are big business. But what about the rest of us? What about you, a randomly chosen non-supermodel reading a short trivia piece on the Internet? What do you know about fashion? Don't get me wrong, you look great today, but there are a lot of sartorial misconceptions that make the rounds in our culture. We've asked Ken Jennings, who is well-dressed at least by the low standards of Jeopardy! contestants, to go through our closets and throw out all the wrong stuff we thought we knew about our clothes.

What Color Is Puce?

Have you heard of the Mandela Effect? It's a modern phenomenon of collective false memory, named for the (apparently not uncommon) misconception many people have that Nelson Mandela died sometime in the 1980s. In the past, when a bunch of people were wrong about a clear point of fact, we called this "being wrong." But today, many tender-hearted millennials who misremember their childhood have become convinced that their memories are unimpeachable and there must, therefore, be a paranormal explanation that will vindicate their false beliefs. Perhaps they've somehow been recently transported to this alternate reality in which Mandela died in 2013. Sounds implausible? Sure, but I dare you to prove they didn't switch universes!

The Debunker

There are hundreds of silly examples of parallel history for Mandela Effect believers: the "Berenstain Bears" spelling their name "e-i-n," the Monopoly mascot wearing a monocle, the comedian Sinbad playing a genie named "Shazaam." (These things never happened.) One interesting one regards the color "puce." Many people are surprised to learn that puce is, in fact, a purplish-brown color—or, in the words of Merriam-Webster's Third Unabridged, "a dark red that is yellower and less strong than cranberry." The Mandela people are convinced—convinced!—that puce was once a shade of green.

It's hard to quantify just how many people don't know what puce is, but when a Marvel Comics artist polled her Twitter followers about puce a few months ago, 57 percent wrongly thought it was a shade of green. Some Mandela folks have an elaborate conspiracy theory that involves a second color as well: they remember chartreuse (a vivid yellow-green) as being a reddish-purple color, and wonder if puce and chartreuse might have switched places in some kind of chromatic dimensional vortex. Wikipedia notes an 1811 medical journal that describes a type of tea as "puce green," but in context, it's clear that that the tea being described is green with overtones of puce. I hate to say it, but to my mind the likeliest avenue for people assuming that "puce" is a pale, pea-soupy green is the word's resemblance to "puke." But that's not how colors work! We don't just switch them to their phonetically closest bodily fluid! Puce is actually named for a different fluid entirely: it comes to us from the French couleur puce, meaning "flea-colored," probably for the dried-blood color of squished fleas. Yuck.

Quick Quiz: What famous woman wore so much puce in the summer of 1775 that the color became all the rage in Paris?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.