The Fascinating Origins of 10 Everyday Color Words

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By Onna Nelson, University of California, Santa Barbara

1. English red

The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word for red, reudh, remained largely unchanged for thousands of years, showing up in English red, Spanish rojo, French rouge, German rot, Icelandic rauðr, and Welsh rhudd. Not only did it lead to these words for the color itself, it also led to red-related English words like ruby, rust, and rubeola.

2. English black

The PIE word bhel evolved into many modern words meaning "white," including Spanish blanco, French blanc, Italian bianco, and Portuguese branco, as well as white-related words such as bleach and blank. So why does the English word black look so much like all these other words for white? Well, bhel also referred to anything bright, like fire, and the result of fire is blackened, charred remains. Hence, black.

3. English green

The PIE word ghre-, meaning "to grow," is another root which endured the centuries. What grows? Green stuff! Grhe- gave us many modern words meaning "green," including English green, German grün, and Icelandic grænn, as well as the English words grow, grass, graze and herb.

4. Portuguese red and purple

As languages add color words to their lexicon, the colors a word refers to can get shifted around. Portuguese roxo, related to the same PIE word reudh, used to mean red and red-related colors, including pink, orange, and purple. When the bright red pigment vermilion was imported from China, Portuguese began using vermelho to refer to red, and pushed roxo aside to refer exclusively to purple.

5. English purple

Purpura is the Latin name of a particular kind of shellfish which, when ground up, produces a bright purple dye, which in turn was taken from the Greek word porphura to describe the same sea creature. The word purpura later began to refer to the dye, and eventually the color of this dye. This dye was very expensive, and purple was considered a color of royalty throughout Europe. When this dye was exported to England, the word purple was imported into English as well. Today "purpura" is used by medicos to describe purplish discolorations of the skin.

6. English pink

Lots of fancy color words come from flowers or fruits: violet, periwinkle, lavender, lilac, olive, eggplant, pumpkin, and peach, to name a few. In English, pink used to refer exclusively to a flower called a pink, a dianthus which has pale red petals with fringed edges. "Pink" the verb, meaning to cut or tear jaggedly, has been in use in the English language since the early 14th century. Eventually, English speakers forgot the name of the flower, but preserved the word for the color. 

7. Japanese blue and green

Over two-thirds of the world's languages have a single word for both green and blue, known as grue in English. In Japanese, aoi historically referred to grue. When Crayola crayons were imported, green was labeled midori and blue was labeled aoi. New generations of schoolchildren learned them as different colors. But traces of grue remain: Japanese still refers to “blue” traffic lights and “blue” apples with aoi.

8. Kurdish and Russian blue

In Russian, the word for dark blue is sinii, and in Kurdish the word for blue is šin. In Neo-Aramaic, a central hub of trade, the word for blue is sǐni, and in Kurdish the word for blue is šin. In Arabic, a central hub of trade, the word for 'Chinese' is sini. The words for Chinese and blue became synonymous due to the popular blue and white porcelain china commonly traded in the region.

9. Spanish yellow

Amarillo, or "yellow," is a diminutive form of the Spanish word amargo, which comes from the Latin word amarus, meaning "bitter." So how did “little bitter” come to be synonymous with “yellow”? In the Middle Ages, medical physicians commonly believed that the human body had four humors. The “bitter humor” referred to bile, which is yellow.

10. English orange

When oranges (the fruit) were exported from India, the word for them was exported too. Sanskrit narangah, or "orange tree," was borrowed into Persian as narang, "orange (fruit)," which was borrowed into Arabic as naranj, into Italian as arancia, into French as orange, and eventually into English as orange. The color of the fruit was so striking that after borrowing the word and the crop, English speakers eventually began referring to the color by this word as well. Before oranges were imported in the 1500s, the English word for orange (the color) was geoluhread (literally, "yellow-red").

January 18, 2014 - 12:56pm
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