Q From Sheila Napier: Why do we talk about somebody with a good suntan being brown as a berry? Berries are usually red, occasionally blue or black but I can’t think of a brown one.
A This has long puzzled people and readers have asked me about it in the past. The simple truth is that nobody really knows, though there are theories.
The first thing to say about the expression is that it’s ancient. It appears twice in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, dating from the 1380s, firstly in the Prologue (“His palfrey was as broun as is a berye”, referring to a horse ridden by a monk) and then in the unfinished Cook’s Tale as a description of the cook (“Broun as a berye, a propre short felawe”, which in modern English is “brown as a berry, a good-looking small fellow”.) We may reasonably presume that as a conventional simile it is even older in speech.
A suggestion often made is that it refers to coffee beans. It can’t, because coffee hadn’t been introduced into England in Chaucer’s day. Another idea is that in the English of the time berry could refer to a nut, but there’s no suggestion in the Oxford English Dictionary or the Middle English Dictionary that people used it that way. The OED does remark that in Old English, four centuries before Chaucer, berry was most commonly used of grapes, which then grew quite well in southern Britain in the warm climate of the time. But it would be a stretch for us to describe any variety of grape as brown.
Curiously, brown was also used of armour or glass to mean shining bright — a text of about 1330 described a “sword of brown steel”. Some berries are shiny, but it’s unlikely that brown in this sense was used of a person’s face.
Ancient writers seemed to be insensitive to colour and emphasised light and dark in preference to hues. There is support for this in the OED, which gives the earliest sense of brown as dusky or dark. This is echoed by equivalent words in other languages. In Swedish, brun could mean dark-coloured or black, dark red, or reddish-brown; in Old French brun meant a dark colour between red and black; Old High German brûn could mean dark-coloured. This seems like the most probable origin.