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The Colour of Words

Words for colours are slippery things. This came particularly to mind when I was reading through some fashion pages the other day as part of my eternal search for new vocabulary. One piece of clothing, whose coloured illustration showed it to be a sort of dull pastel green, was described as being khaki in colour. Now I am old enough to remember the colour of British army uniforms just after the Second World War. Their uniforms were also said to be khaki (so much so that to be in khaki meant to be in the Army), but they were most certainly also a sandy brown with no hint of green. This fitted the etymology of the word — a legacy of British rule in India — which comes from an Urdu word meaning “dusty” (no connection with the ancient informal English term cacky, though the implied colours are, or were, similar).

If a word so recent and apparently so clearly defined can change meaning, almost without anyone noticing, perhaps it is not so surprising that other colour words have done the same through history, even those for the primary colours that you would think too well-grounded in nature to suffer much change.

Take yellow for example. This has been traced to an Indo-European root *ghel or *gohl which seems to have denoted both yellow and green. This has evolved into many terms which have reached English by a variety of routes, including jaundice (from Latin galbus “greenish-yellow”, via French), gold (so that “golden-yellow” is a tautology, etymologically speaking), choleric (from the Greek word for “bile”, which is yellow-green in colour) and yolk (which, therefore, just means “the yellow part of the egg”). The word blue has had an even more eventful history. It started out, apparently, as the Indo-European root *bhlewos, meaning “yellow”, and evolved into the Greek phalos, “white”, and hence in Old English to “pale” and “the colour of bruised skin”; we actually re-borrowed the word blue in its modern sense from French. However, the word green seems always to have been tightly bound to the idea of growing things: indeed green and grow come from the same Germanic root. Red is another colour-fast word, related to the Greek eruthros (hence words like erythrocyte, “red blood cell”) and to the English words russet, ruby, ruddy and rust.

In another colour transition, the hair colour auburn once meant “brownish-white” or “yellowish-white” (it derives from Latin albus, “white”, via the medieval Latin alburnus, “whitish; off-white”) and only shifted sense to refer to a shade of brown in the sixteenth century, seemingly because it was sometimes spelled “abrun” or “a-brown” and was misunderstood as deriving from “brown”. Though some older dictionary definitions say it could mean either “golden-brown” or “reddish-brown”, the sense has continued to shift so that now it refers exclusively to the latter colour.

The word pink is generally agreed to be derived from the similar Dutch word pinck. However, there are two theories about which sense of the Dutch word was involved, and how it became applied to the colour. One is that it came from pinck in the sense of “small” (which turns up in the modern English word pinky for “little finger”), through the expression pinck oogen “small eyes” — that is, “half-closed eyes” — and that this was borrowed into English and applied to the flowers of the common English cottage-garden species Dianthus plumarius, which has been called a pink since the seventeenth century. The other theory says it came from pinck in the sense of “hole” (which in English later came to mean cutting a zigzag or scalloped edge in fabric to prevent it fraying, hence pinking shears) and was applied to the flowers of Dianthus because they resembled the shape of the holes. Either way, the colour comes from the plant, not the other way round.

Many other modern colour words are similarly derived from the colours of plants and natural substances, which have long been raided by colourists in search for names to apply to the ever-more subtle shades which turn up in commercial colour charts. There’s no great surprise in colours like cinnamon, tangerine, oyster, lime, melon, glacier, apple white, ivory, silver, chocolate, amber or aubergine, though there probably is in puce, a colour which seems intrinsically comic even if you don’t know that it actually means “flea coloured” (from Latin pulex via French).

Quite a large set of our less-common colour words have similarly come from French: the currently-fashionable shade taupe for a brownish-grey colour comes from the word for mole; an earlier fashion gave us greige, at first spelled grège, which shows that it was borrowed from the French word for the colour of raw silk; beige is a transferred epithet from the French name for a type of woollen fabric usually left undyed; ecru similarly comes from the French écru, “unbleached”; and maroon is derived from the French name for the sweet chestnut, whose fruit is that distinctive brownish-red colour.

Other colour names originate in those for precious stones: aquamarine, for example, was originally the name of a type of beryl (Latin aqua marina, “(the colour of) sea water”, referring presumably to the Mediterranean and not to the dull grey-green of British waters. Ultramarine might seem to be a directly-related word, as it refers to a deeper shade of blue, but the “ultra” part of it means “beyond” in the literal sense — a stone which came from across or beyond the sea, since it was made from ground-up lapis lazuli imported from Asia (a much-modified version of the Arabic name for the mineral gave rise to azure in medieval English). The word turquoise comes from the Old French pierre turquoise, the “Turkish stone”, though the word is now used more frequently in its colour sense than in reference to the stone, unlike emerald, which retains both its literal and figurative senses in about equal measure.

The colour orange derives originally from the Sanskrit word narangah for the fruit, whose name moved westwards through Persian narang and Arabic naranj to Spanish (the Arabs imported it into Europe via Moorish Spain in medieval times); in French it became corrupted to orange, in part by the process called metanalysis but also through being strongly influenced by the name of the town of Orange in south-eastern France which used to be a centre of the orange trade.

Purple comes to us from Greek via Latin and refers to the dye extracted from a species of Mediterranean shellfish, which was so rare and valuable that it was reserved for royal garments. However, the colour from the dye is very variable, and could at times be crimson (the colour of cardinals’ robes), well removed from the colour we normally associate with the word. When William Perkin discovered his first synthetic dyestuff in 1856, derived from aniline, he called it at first aniline purple but subsequently changed its name to the more distinctive mauve, taken from the French word for the mallow plant, whose stems were purple (his new dye became so popular that the 1860s were called the mauve decade). It’s good he changed the name, because the chemical compound aniline that was a starting point for the new dye was so named in 1841 after anil, the common word at one time for the purple vegetable dye we now call indigo (from the Portuguese word which means “the Indian (dye)” because that was where they got it from), so aniline purple is very nearly a tautology.

The word crimson I’ve just used comes from the Sanskrit krmi-ja, “(a dye) produced from a worm” (actually it came from the dried bodies of a small insect), through the Arabic qirmaz and the Old Spanish cremesin (via medieval Latin this also gave us carmine); the insect was called the kermes but a continuing mistaken belief that it was a worm also gave rise to the word vermillion (Latin “worm-coloured”, from vermiculus, the Latin term for the kermes). Yet another word for this colour, scarlet, was not originally a colour word at all, but referred to a high-quality cloth which may have originated in Persia, and which could have been blue or green, though it was commonly dyed red. So Will Scarlet of Robin Hood legend may just have been well-dressed.

Magenta, a key colour in photographic reproduction, derives its name from a dye discovered by the London company Simpson, Nicholson and Maule. In 1859, Edward Nicholson found a way to make it from aniline, and marketed it under the name magenta after Garibaldi’s then-recent victory in northern Italy. (The chemical name of the dye is fuchsine, named by E Verguin — who discovered another way of making it in France at almost the same time — after the purple-red flowers of the fuchsia plant, which itself commemorates the sixteenth-century German botanist Leonhard Fuchs, though delicately re-pronounced to spare the blushes of the innocent.)

The word livid which turned up earlier has an odd history, which may be guessed from the entry in one of my etymological dictionaries which said “livid: see sloe”. The connection is that the word sloe probably originally meant the “blue-black” fruit, perhaps being derived from an ancient Germanic form *slaikhwon, which may be linked with the Latin livere, “(be) blue-black”. It became applied to the similar colour of bruises when it was first introduced in the seventeenth century (similar in sense to the idiom black and blue). But — perhaps because the colour of bruises is so variable — its sense shifted about in a confusing manner until any firm connection with a single colour was lost. As an illustration of this, my Roget’s Thesaurus gives five references for the word in its index: “blackish”, “grey”, “colourless”, “purple” and “angry”. This shift of associations may have come about because the word was applied to the colour of death, say in phrases like the livid lips of the corpse, in which the word means “ashen”, or “leaden”. It may then have become linked to the colour of the complexion during rage, in which the face can go a lifeless colour through blood draining from the skin (in fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word to mean “(of) a bluish leaden colour” and says firmly that it was applied to complexions because enraged people went pale with emotion). My guess is that the word became so strongly attached to this figurative sense of “enraged” that it was mistakenly re-applied to the flushed, purplish colour which is even more common when someone is angry. What is certain is that the only safe way to use livid these days is to avoid colour associations and use only its figurative sense of “enraged”:

Trying to keep track of these shifting colour names can make you absolutely livid ...

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 28 Jul. 1996

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/colour.htm
Last modified: 28 July 1996.