In commercial printing, "spot colors" refers to specialized ink mixes to create a predetermined color. Pantone, Toyo, and others are brands of inks which specialize in the sale of "spot color" inks.

I know this already.

I recently became curious as to why the inks are called "spot".

So I started researching. I can find definition after definition after definition of what "spot color" means, how it's used on press, desktops, applications, etcetera. However, I can not seem to find anything which explains why the term "spot" was originally used.

Does anyone know where the term "spot", as related to special inks, originated?

My guessing would lead me to think that it was coined because that color was only meant for that "spot", thus "that spot of color" became "spot color". But that seems too simple and doesn't really explain the correlation to specialized color mixes.

2 Answers 2


In the wikipedia article on spot color:

In offset printing, a spot color is any color generated by an ink (pure or mixed) that is printed using a single run. [CMYKOG...] The two additional spot colors are added to compensate for the ineffective reproduction of faint tints using CMYK colors only. However, offset technicians around the world use the term spot color to mean any color generated by a non-standard offset ink; such as metallic, fluorescent, or custom hand-mixed inks.

A "tint"

Beyond contemporary dictionaries (Oxford, Dictionary.com), the PrintWiki - The Free Encyclopedia of Print provides interesting details on spot color (a specific region of a printed sheet - so a "spot" as you say - and the fact that there is no need for color separation i.e. by contrast to how process colors are used, etc.) and furthermore states that it is sometimes called a tint:

In printing, an alternate term for flat tint. See Flat Tint.

The term tint is also occasionally used as an alternate term for spot color. See Spot Color.

In subtractive color theory, tint refers to a primary hue to which some quantity of white pigment has been added.

The term tint is also an alternate term for saturation, or how white (or light) a particular hue is. See Saturation.

In ink mixing, a colored printing ink to which a quantity of extender or white pigment has been added in order to reduce the color strength of the primary color.

In halftone photography, tint refers to a halftone produced with a dot percentage of less than 100%.

Etymology (Online Etymology Dictionary)

spot (n.)

c.1200, "moral stain," probably from Old English splott "a spot, blot, patch (of land)," and partly from or related to Middle Dutch spotte "spot, speck." Other cognates are East Frisian spot "speck," North Frisian spot "speck, piece of ground," Old Norse spotti "small piece," Norwegian spot "spot, small piece of land." It is likely that some of these are borrowed from others, but the exact evolution now is impossible to trace.

Meaning "speck, stain" is from mid-14c. The sense of "particular place, small extent of space" is from c.1300. Meaning "short interval in a broadcast for an advertisement or announcement" is from 1923. Proceeded by a number (as in five-spot) it originally was a term for "prison sentence" of that many years (1901, American English slang). To put (someone) on the spot "place in a difficult situation" is from 1928. Colloquial phrase to hit the spot "satisfy, be what is required" is from 1868. Spot check first attested 1933. Adverbial phrase spot on "completely right" attested from 1920.

spot (v.)

mid-13c., "to mark or stain with spots;" late 14c. as "to stain, sully, tarnish," from spot (n.). Meaning "to see and recognize," is from 1718, originally colloquial and applied to a criminal or suspected person; the general sense is from 1860. Related: Spotted; spotting. Spotted dick "suet pudding with currants and raisins" is attested from 1849.

hue (n.1)

"color," Old English hiw "color, form, appearance, beauty," earlier heow, hiow, from Proto-Germanic *hiwam (cognates: Old Norse hy "bird's down," Swedish hy "skin, complexion," Gothic hiwi "form, appearance"), from PIE *kei-, a color adjective of broad application (cognates: Sanskrit chawi "hide, skin, complexion, color, beauty, splendor," Lithuanian šyvas "white"). A common word in Old English, squeezed into obscurity after c.1600 by color, but revived 1850s in chemistry and chromatography.

tinct (n.)

"color, tint," c.1600, from Latin tinctus "a dyeing," from tingere "to dye" (see tincture).

tincture (n.)

c.1400, "a coloring, dye," from Latin tinctura "act of dyeing or tingeing," from tinctus "dye," past participle of tingere "to tinge, dye, soak in color," originally merely "to moisten, wet, soak," from PIE root *teng- "to soak" (cognates: Old High German dunkon "to soak," Greek tengein "to moisten"). Meaning "solution of medicine in a mixture of alcohol" is first recorded 1640s. The verb is recorded from 1610s. Related: Tinctured.

So the noun can mean amongst other things something close to "compliant" or "be right". The verb can mean something close to "fill" as well as "identify". Historically, hue comes before color and tint involves some type of process.

U.S. Very late 19th (The Century Dictionary, 1890s)

This source details many meanings of spot, but it contains no reference whatsoever to spot color. Yet the supplement contains spotter used differently than in the main work(one who spots, a detective):

[...]4. One who tints photographs.

So could there be some relationship to a specialized field of that era i.e. tinting of photographs, where [a] single overall colour underlies the image and is most apparent in the highlights and mid-tones? See also hand coloring. In Dictionary.com there is also a photography-related meaning, but in a different light, as in spotting(retouching): to remove spots from (a negative or print) by covering with opaque color. So a spotter colorizes whereas spotting involves small patches on specific spots for retouching.

Quick comparison: French

The French version of the article on spot color is called "Ton direct":

Le ton direct en imprimerie est le fait d'imprimer une teinte directement sans passer par l'utilisation du spectre CMJN.

That word is tint, from the same latin origin. The English language is trying to express something like "to print a tint directly". The context is hue had been replaced with color historically. So is it a "spot on/for the spot/on the spot/hitting the spot" color in reference to that too i.e. of a specific tint/for a specific print job/directly/complying with expectations? It certainly seems to be about "peculiar parameters" for an ink tailored to a job so as to enable a simpler print process.


This exploration supports no conclusion. Observations could be that it seems a lot about colors for specific "spots" like you said. At the same time, the word spot has a rich texture. Photographic techniques are central to modern 20th century printing and the study of color from the middle of the 19th was key in specializing/rediscovering words related to color and developing processes. At that time, a spotter used to be someone who tinted photographs - in some cases by hand. The idea of spot color may also be independently linked to an exact tint and that is somewhat related to a "direct" process which contrasts with printing using transparent inks i.e. by layer.

Hopefully this can assist someone with expertise in connecting the spots!

  • 1
    @Scott You're welcome! Words always have some interesting stories to tell; and discovering that Century dictionary was quite satisfying in that respect... Color is fascinating.
    – user29318
    Oct 14, 2014 at 4:29

Because this type of color printing (low cost, letterpress, almost always black plus one or maybe two other inks) was really only capable of printing spots of color -- distinct regions. The term Spot color contrasts with reproduction of continuous tone images (photographs) or multicolor images (like comics) the require CMYK (process or 4-color) printing.

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