Last Updated: February 25, 2016
· kevin-wolf

An approach for Sass: pseudo-dictionaries


One of the things that I don't love about Sass is its lack of support for the use of dictionaries or associative arrays.

This isn't an official approach, and I sincerely don't remember to have read about it. It is about trying to simulate a key => value dictionary, by creating a comma-separated list and assigning it to a variable.

Implementing it

For start using this approach, we need:

  • A pseudo-dictionary.
  • A function to retrieve a value from dictionaries.

The pseudo-dictionary

It is a simple Sass list in which we will separate every key => value pair with a comma. For example, we will create our color pallete list.

$colors :
  apple       #c0392b,
  sky         #2980b9,
  turquoise   #1abc9c,
  wet-asphalt #34495e

Now, we can retrieve a color from the list by it's numeric index using Sass's nth-child function, although this isn't a recommended practice because it will depend on the item position, and this position can change when we add new colors to the list.

.page-background {
  $bg-item         : nth($colors, 1); // apple #c0392b
  $bg              : nth($bg-item, 2); // #c0392b
  $foreground-item : nth($colors, 4); // wet-asphalt #34495e
  $foreground      : nth($foreground-item, 2); // #34495e
  background-color : $bg;
  color            : $foreground;

The getter function

To avoid the previous code block approach, we need to create a simple Sass function which should receive a key name and return it's value.

@function getColor ($colorName) {

  // Run across the color list.
  @each $color in $colors {

    // If the key (first child of the current $color) is
    // the same as the specified by params, return the value.
    @if nth($color, 1) == $colorName {
      @return nth($color, 2);

Now, we can return the color value on a cleaner way using that function.

.page-background {
  background-color  : getColor(apple);
  color             : getColor(wet-asphalt);

Bonus: Object Oriented Sass all the way!

Now that you know how to simulate dictionaries in Sass, let's take advantage of this practice by creating some object oriented classes.

// Run across the colors dictionary to create both
// text-color classes.
@each $color in $colors {
  .text-#{nth($color, 1)} {
    color : nth($color, 2);

Or, if you are a nerd, you can easily generate both background and foreground color classes on 7 lines.

@each $feat in "background-color", "color" {
  @each $color in $colors {
    .#{$feat}-#{nth($color, 1)} {
      #{$feat} : nth($color, 2);

Source code.

You can check the code of this tutorial at this SassMeister gist.

3 Responses
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Kevin, this is frickin' boss. I was feeling doubtful until I took a look at my css and every color matched up to my classes. This is going to make setting background colors by class a breeze.

over 1 year ago ·

If you're only interested in SCSS extension you can replace the "." in your generator functions with "%" to create placeholder classes. Thanks for this, really handy.

over 1 year ago ·

Thank you - this is exactly what I was looking for.

over 1 year ago ·