Colourful language

No, not that sort of colourful language.  (Although – did you know that random typographical symbols to indicate swearing without actually swearing has a name?  It’s called a ‘grawlix’.  Thanks to the estimable (and entertainingly foul-mouthed) Strong Language blog for that little gem.)

This is more of an annex to my two-part post on the psychology of colour, and is the result of a passing thought that I had while writing it:

I know why we call the colour orange ‘orange’…

(if you don’t, read on!)

…but why do we call red ‘red’?

I didn’t know the answer to that, so thought I’d find out.

Primary and secondary colours

The word red, it turns out, is from the Old English word rēad meaning… well, ‘red’.  It was originally spelled read and pronounced with a long ‘e’ in the middle (i.e. ‘reed’); the English surname Read (and Reed, Reid and related variant spellings) are the same word, originally a nickname for someone with red hair or a ruddy face.  When used to describe a person, and eventually as a surname, the word kept its original pronunciation and spelling, but it gradually evolved to have a short ‘e’ in the middle when used as the name of a colour.  This makes as much as sense as most aspects of the English language (i.e. not very much).

Yellow also comes from an Old English word, geolwe, meaning simply ‘yellow’.

Blue comes from the Old French blo, meaning wan, pale or discoloured.  Originally the word was pronounced and spelled in the same way as the Old French word, but, under the influence of the modern French bleu, came to its modern English spelling and pronunciation from around the 13th century.

Both words ultimately come from the Proto Indo European (PIE)* root bhel or ghel, meaning to shine or flash.  Gold comes from the same root word, so blue, yellow and gold are all etymological cousins.

Another linguistic relative, albeit of the third-cousin-twice-removed variety, is black, which comes from the Proto-Germanic blakaz meaning ‘burnt’.  This derives from the PIE root bhleg, meaning ‘to burn’, which in turn comes from the same bhelghel root as blue, yellow and gold.  The word black, in Old English, meant ‘dark’ (as in ‘without light’); the word for the colour black was sweart (c.f. modern German schwarz, ‘black’). The word ‘black’ didn’t take on the job of describing the colour until around the 11th century.

White simply – which is a relief after all that – comes from the Old English hwit meaning ‘white’.  (I know that, strictly speaking, white isn’t a colour – it’s an absence of colour – but we tend to treat it as such and so it gets included here.)

Green is another Old English word: it was originally grene, meaning ‘green’ or ‘growing’ (which is why freshly cut timber is called ‘green’, even though it’s usually brown).

Purple is also Old English – the word was originally purpul – but arrived there via a somewhat convoluted route.  The word arrived in England sometime around the 9th or 10th centuries, from the Latin purpura, meaning ‘purple’ or, more specifically, ‘purple dye’.  The Romans in turn borrowed the word from Greek, whose word porphyra was the name of a purple dye produced from the shells of a certain type of shellfish (Bolinus brandaris or spiny dye-murex snail, if you’re really interested) and gradually transferred the name to the colour.  The Greek word was probably a borrowing from Semitic; the Semitic word is ‘of unknown origin’.

Spiny dye-murex snails prepared for cooking
Spiny dye-murex snails: source of purple dye and apparently an Italian delicacy

Orange – I got there in the end – is another well-travelled word.  As I mentioned in part one of The wonderful world of colour, the word didn’t arrive in English until the 16th century**.  The original word was the Old French norange, which was derived from the Venetian naranza (an orange), which in turn came, via Arabic and Persian, from the Sanskrit naranga-s (an orange tree).  (The modern Spanish word for both colour and fruit is naranja, which is strikingly similar to the Sanskrit word where the journey started.)  At some point the ‘n’ at the start of norange emigrated from the start of the word to the end of the definite article, leaving us with the final form ‘orange’ (in both French and English).

[If you are of the techie or designer persuasion, you may be inclined to consider the primary colours to be yellow, cyan and magenta rather than yellow, blue and red.  For the record: cyan is a very recent addition to the English language, dating back no further than the end of the 19th century.  It comes from the Greek kyanos, meaning  both the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli and its dark blue colour.  Magenta isn’t much older, dating from the mid 19th century, and was the name of an artificial red dye invented at that time and named after an Italian town that was the location of a battle.]

Lapis lazuli stone being mined
Lapis lazuli being mined in Afghanistan

Miscellaneous colour words

Pink is another interesting word which, like ‘orange’, made its home in English in the 16th century.  Before this, there was no specific word for the colour, which seems odd until you think that we have no specific word for light shades of most colours (light blue is usually just called light blue, for instance) and get along just fine without them, thank you very much.

‘Pink’ originally meant to prick or make holes in something, and then came to refer to things with a ragged edge (haberdashers and crafters will be aware of ‘pinking shears’, a type of scissors that produce a jagged edge when used to cut something).  The word came to refer to a particular variety of small, spicy-scented dianthus which was particularly popular in the Elizabethan era, in reference to the jagged edges of their petals.  (These flowers have rather gone out of fashion these days, which I think is something of a pity as the scent is truly extraordinary.)  Pinks usually come in shades of light red, and by the end of the 16th century the word had transferred from the flower to the colour.

Potted pink plants, with their characteristic frilly edges
Pinks, showing off their characteristic jagged-edged petals

Brown is yet another Old English word, originally spelt brun, meaning dark or dusky: it didn’t take on the meaning of ‘brown colour’ until the 13th century.  The word brun also meant bright or shining, a sense that is preserved in the word ‘burnish’ (meaning to polish and / or make shiny).

Grey (or gray if you are in the US) is Germanic, via the Old English græg, meaning simply ‘grey’.  The origin of the Germanic word is unknown, and has no known link to any other word or language (Latin, which gave similar words to modern Romance languages – French and Spanish gris, Italian grigio, for example – also borrowed it from the Germanic source).

Throwing shade(s)

Most shades of colours are named, rather prosaically, after items that are that colour: pine, mustard, salmon, cherry.  (Having said that, cherry is quite an interesting word in its own right: the word was originally the Norman French cherise, but people assumed that a word that ended in an ‘s’ sound must be a plural and that the singular therefore had to be ‘cheri’, which became ‘cherry’.  The modern French cerise was borrowed again, much later, for a shade of cherry-red that became popular in the mid 19th century.  We now use cerise in English to describe a particularly vivid shade of pink, so have acquired two colour words for the price of one – etymological bargain hunting at its finest.)

Below are a few of the more interesting (or at least less obvious) shade names.  Shades of yellow and orange seem to be ubiquitously self-descriptive, so I haven’t included any of these – it doesn’t take a great deal of etymological detective work to find out why the shade ‘daffodil’ is so called!

50 (well, 4) shades of red

Shades of red
Clockwise from top left: carmine, crimson, maroon, scarlet

Carmine is French, from the Medieval Latin carminium, from the Arabic qirmiz, meaning crimson.  In French, the word dates from at least the 12th century, originally in reference to a specific form of red dye.  The English language didn’t adopt the word until the 18th century, and as the name of a colour only at the very end of that century.

Crimson derives, via Old Spanish and Medieval Latin, from ‘kermes’, a variety of shield bug which produces a strong red dye when crushed (poor bugs!).  It was used in English from the early 15th century.

Maroon comes simply from the French marron, a chestnut.  It has no connection with ‘maroon’ in the sense of ‘to abandon’ – the fact that the two words are identical in English is mere linguistic coincidence.

Scarlet is another colour word that wandered a long way before making its home in English in the 14th century.  It started off in Latin as sigillatus – clothing decorated with symbols – then travelled, via Greek, to Arabic as siqillat, meaning fine clothing or cloth.  It then travelled back to Medieval Latin as scarlatum, meaning cloth that was dyed red, then to Old French as escarlate, again meaning red-dyed cloth.  It arrived in English with the same meaning in the 13th century, before finally deciding to settle down as the name of a colour.

Getting the blues

Shades of blue
Clockwise from top left: indigo, navy, teal, turquoise

Indigo comes simply from the Latin indigo, meaning a blue dye derived from plants.  The Latin word comes from the Greek indikon, meaning a blue dye from India.  The word was originally spelt indico in English, but changed to its modern spelling in the 17th century, under influence of the Dutch indigo.  (The Dutch influence was, I am guessing, a result of trade with the Dutch colonies in the Far East, which may well have included blue dye from India.)

Navy was, not surprisingly, the colour of uniforms worn by men in the British Navy.  The word ‘navy’ comes from the Latin navigium, meaning simply ‘a boat’.

Teal is the name of a species of duck that has stripes of this colour on its wings, and on the head of the male.  As a colour name, it is recorded no earlier than the 1920s (which I admit surprised me – I thought the word was far older than that).

Male Eurasian Teal, showing his teal-coloured stripes.
A male Eurasian Teal, showing his teal-coloured stripes

Turquoise fairly obviously comes from the colour of the semi-precious stone.  The stone’s name comes from the Old French pierre turqueise, meaning ‘Turkish stone’, because the first turquoises came to Europe from the Turkish Empire, and dates from the mid 16th century.  As the name of a colour, it seems to have been used only from the mid 19th century.

Going green

Shades of green
Clockwise from top left: avocado, khaki, Lincoln green, viridian

Avocado is, I know, a breach of my statement about including only ‘non-obvious’ colour names: it is just the colour of the flesh of the tasty green fruit.  However, the word ‘avocado’ is another interestingly well-travelled one: it comes from the Spanish aguacate, which came from the Nahuatl word āhuacatl, which in turn came from the proto-Aztec word *pa:wa, all meaning ‘avocado’.  The Nahuatl word also meant (and may still mean in some dialects) ‘testicle’ – hopefully because of the shape rather than the colour.

Khaki is another exotic import to the English language, being an Urdu word meaning ‘dust-coloured cloth’; Urdu in its turn adopted the word from the Persian khak, meaning dust.  ‘Khaki’ was originally adopted into English in the mid 19th century with the same meaning as the Urdu word, but quickly came to refer to the colour as well.

Lincoln green was originally an ancient dyeing technique invented in the English city of Lincoln, which produced a particularly strong and vivid shade of green.  By the early 16th century it had become a colour name as well as a dye; by the end of the 16th century, it came to refer to the colour alone as the dyeing technique had been abandoned.

Viridian is another word that originally referred to a specific dye – hydrated chromium oxide, if you’re taking notes – before transferring to the colour.  The name comes from the Latin viridis, meaning ‘green’; despite the fact that this gives the impression of it being a venerable old English word, its first appearance in English was actually not until the mid 19th century.

Purple prose

Shades of purple
Clockwise from top left: aubergine, imperial purple, mauve, violet

Aubergine (or eggplant if you’re outside the UK) is another obvious one as far as colour goes – it’s simply the colour of an aubergine / eggplant (Solanum esculentum), and dates from the late 19th century.  The reason the colour name was such a late arrival in the English language is the same reason that much of the world refers to it as an eggplant: the original fruits were white, rather than the shade of purple that we know today.  The word ‘aubergine’ is another wanderer: English adopted it from the French , which probably borrowed it from the Catalan alberginera, which was borrowed from the Arabic al-badinjan, which was borrowed from Persian badin-gan, which was borrowed from the Sanskrit vatigagama.  That’s a lot of effort for an edible form of nightshade…

Two white. egg-shaped aubergines / eggplants
The name ‘eggplant’ suddenly makes sense, doesn’t it?

Mauve is another type of dye that has become a colour; the word is French (as it sounds, TBH), derived from the Latin malva, meaning the mallow plant, which has flowers of a similar shade.  Like many of the colours in this post, it dates to the mid 19th century.

Finally, violet is named for the flower of that name, which is a similar shade of blue-purple: as a flower, the word dates to the early 14th century, while as a colour it dates to the late 14th century.  The word comes from the Latin viola, meaning both the plant and the colour.  Interestingly (well, I think it’s interesting, anyway), the Greek word for the flower and the colour is ionIon is the source of the name of the element iodine, which is a similar blue-purple colour.

There are probably an infinite number of shades of colours and nearly as many names for them, so this is only the barest sampling.  If there is a particular colour word that you’ve always wondered about that I don’t cover here, please comment below and I’ll play Word Detective and get back to you.

For now, though, that’s it for me on the theme of colour: I will now – or at least very shortly – be going back to the subject of logo design, which is where this whole thing started a couple of weeks ago.  It’s been an educational little detour though, hasn’t it?

* Proto Indo European is a linguistic reconstruction of the language spoken by the prehistoric people of Europe and India, from which nearly all European and Asian languages are derived.  (The sole exception in Europe is Basque, which dates back even further than PIE and has no proven links with any other language anywhere in the world.)
**When referring to the colour, at least.  As the name for the citrus fruit, it arrived in English around the 13th century.

5 thoughts on “Colourful language

  1. This was a great post about colors, but way too long. I read a quarter of it and than was getting tired. A year ago, I read an article about business blogging and it said that posts need to be between 300-500 words. This is because we want to read a lot of posts very quickly, plus our emails, texts on our phone. Our brain can only take so much information. This post could have been turned into three different posts. You have a nice and easy writing style. An enjoyable read.


    1. This is really helpful feedback, thank you. I did wonder about splitting it into two or three pieces, but decided it made more sense to me to keep it as one long post. This type of mega-post will be rare, I think, and I’ll mostly stick to the 300 to 500 word range – which is a very useful guide, so thank you particularly for that!


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