I first saw the word “cyan” in Getting Started With Extended Color Basic, a book that accompanied the Tandy TRS-80, a Christmas gift to the family. I was five. “The Color Computer can produce 9 colors,” the book reads, then recites them like a poem:

0 Black
1 Green
2 Yellow
3 Blue
4 Red
5 Buff
6 Cyan
7 Magenta
8 Orange

Black is, sensibly, zero. Every kindergartner knows green, yellow, blue, red, orange but the remaining colors might be from a fantasy novel. Buff, cyan, magenta.

Some human languages don’t even distinguish blue from green, so the space eked out here for “cyan” seems downright indulgent. I know now that cyan made the cut not for its chromatic salience but because of combinatorial properties of the TRS-80’s color-generation hardware: if your pixel has blue and green components, you get cyan for free. Blue and green phosphors, both at full blast: #00FFFF. Computationally speaking, cyan is low-hanging fruit.

How many distinctions do I carry with me like this—arising not because they describe the world but because they’re artifacts of systemic affordances? Cyan was always only an empty square on the table of elements, waiting for something to be discovered there, a beautiful exploit, a word by turns unwelcome and uncanny for its contingency.

Allison Parrish is a computer programmer, poet, educator and game designer who lives in Brooklyn.