color
n. The spectral composition of visible light.
n. A particular set of visible spectral compositions, perceived or named as a class[.]

The modern English Color is now the same as the Latin from which it came, though the intervening steps are not: the Latin led to the Old French color, which led to the Anglo-Norman colur, which visited Middle English as colour. The Old Latin root is colos, which referred not to color in general but any sort of covering, which contributed to the earliest sense of the world, which referred to the color of the skin or complexion in particular1. The Old Latin comes from the PIE *kel-, meaning to cover or conceal. Our modern definition is from the 14th century, from Middle English, at which point it had replaced the word previously employed, blee.

Blee was a perfectly lovely word, from the Old English blēo, and I’m sorry it left the language. It came from the Proto-Germanic *blījan (“light” or “happy”), itself from PIE *bhlē̆i-, which also meant “light” in color or complexion. Along an evolutionary fork, it gave us the Old English blīþe, from whence “blithe” (as in “blithely”), which meant a light of mood (“glad”) rather than of color.

Of course, as anyone who’s ever looked at a box of crayons can attest, there is a wide variety of color words in use, despite the relatively circumscribed nature of our word for the phenomenon in general.

    blue

Our modern “blue” carried forward from the Middle English blue, though it changed from blewe or blwe. The word we know is a deriviation from the Middle French bleu (think “chicken cordon bleu“, or literally “blue-ribbon chicken”). The Old French was blo, which had both the sense of “pale” and “light-colored” as well as referring specifically to the hue blue, and came from the Frankish blao and ultimately from the Proto-Germanic blæwaz, which is where most of the Germanic languages derive their words for it: Icelandic blár; Dutch blauw, German blau.

Interestingly, the etymology for “blue” is tied up with that of “yellow”. The Middle High German word for the latter was bla, for instance. This likely because the PIE root which, coincidentally, gave us blee (*bhlē̆i-) also referred to blue or yellow hues.

A short note on “indigo”: Those who remember their mnemonic for the colors of the spectrum2 may also note that both blue and “indigo” make an appearance. Indigo is officially a spectral color (as initially defined by Isaac Newton), but the human eye is generally unable to distinguish it from blue and violet, its neighboring colors. The word comes from the Greek indikon (ἰνδικόν), or “Indian dye”, referring specifically to the blue dye coming out of India at that time; it was first used to refer to a color in 1289. The Greek word for India came from the Old Persian hinduš (هند) and ultimately from the Sanskrit for river: síndhu

    yellow

The “yellow” we know and loves comes from a different path, however. The Middle English yelwe comes from the Old English geolwe, which itself is from the Proto-Germanic gelwaz, from whence also the modern German gelb and Swedish gul. The earliest known reference we have to the word is in Beowulf (XXXVI), which talks about a geolwe linde (yellow linden [tree]).

The Latin for yellow or blond is flāvus, which came from that same PIE root, *bʰlē̆i. But the Germanic branch comes from a different root, ĝʰel, which means “to shine”, and is the root not only for “yellow” but also “green” in some languages.

Many historical languages used their word for yellow to refer to both the hue and to the blond color of hair or complexion. Our modern word “blond[e]”, alas, has no etymological connection; it’s ultimately from the Frankish blund, which refers to a mix of yellow and brown specifically, but blended or mixed colors generally—and, you guessed it, “blond” is related to “blend” at the PIE level.

    red

Red is one of those simple, timeless words that seems like a cognate in just about every language. It’s from the PIE *h₁roudhós, which gave rise to everything from the Sanskrit rudhirá (रुधिर) to the Greek erythrós (ἐρυθρός) to the Latin rūfus to the German rot. Our modern “red” comes by way of the Proto-Germanic rauđaz and the Old English rēad. It’s also the source of “ruby” (from the Latin rubeo, or “I am red”) and ruddy (from the Old English rudiġ, from the same PIE root).

Red is unique because, though one might think that our basic colors would have simple and definite roots, it is the only color for which there is a single, definitive root in Proto-Indo-European.

    green

One might expect the etymological origins of a word to relate to the concepts our ancient forebears word have described with them. Blue for the ocean, perhaps, or red for blood (in the case of the Sanskrit rudhirá, this is actually the case, but it didn’t appear to have that meaning in PIE). So far this isn’t so (although “rust” is ultimately derived from the PIE red).

That changes with green, which has (I think) the neatest etymology of all the colors. We get it from the Old English grēne, via the Proto-Germanic *ʒrōniaz, and ultimately from the PIE root *gʰrōni-, which means “to grow”; the corollary to this is that when most plants are healthy and grow, they also turn or stay “green” as well. In this case, it appears likely that the word which described a phenomenon of healthy plants also came to describe their color, as well. The word had split off by the time of Old English, so that “grow” is growan.

    orange

Orange, like purple, has no other word in the English language that rhymes with it. It is also semi-famous for being both a color and a fruit; the fruit existed before the color. When the word first arrived in a form which would look familiar to modern speakers, it was orenge, from Old French by virtue of Anglo-Norman, which likely borrowed it from some construct of Italian. What we know for certain is that the ultimate origin is Sanskrit (नारङ्ग, or nāraṅgaḥ) by way of one or more Dravidian3 languages such as Tamil. The Spanish naranja borrows directly from this lineage.

Because the geographic distribution of oranges excluded much of the Western, English-speaking world for a long time, orange the color was referred to as geoluhread—which, if you’ve been paying attention to the Old English words so far, is a compound noun meaning “yellow-read”, which is not only straightforward but accurate as well.

    purple/violet

Our modern “purple” comes with only minor orthographic changes from the Old English purpul (first recorded in 10th century Northumbrian text), which got it from the Latin purpura, which got it from the Greek porphyra (πορφύρα), which was used to refer specifically to a color of snail-derived dye (called “Tyrian purple”) used extensively by the Phoenicians. It was expensive, and used largely by royalty, which is why deep purple is still associated today with royalty. The Hebrews called it argaman (ארגמן), though their word means “crimson” and not purple.

Though we most commonly use “purple” to refer to the color, the correct spectral term is “violet”; purple occurs somewhere between violet and red. That is to say, “violet” is a wavelength of light; “purple” is a combination of blue and red light. As with the orange, the term “violet” to refer to a color arose from the flower known as “violet” and not the other way around.

    white

White is not technically a color, but rather the effect produces by unsplit spectral light. Regardless, it’s often thought of as a color, certainly in terms of cultural or linguistic connotation. We English speakers get it from the Old English hwīt, from Proto-Germanic *khwitaz, and you can still see it in Icelandic as hvítt and slightly less so in the German weiß. Ultimately, it’s from the PIE kwintos, or “bright”, and which makes sense, because a white object is reflecting all visible spectra of light back at the observer’s eyes.

    brown

Brown is not a spectral color; it’s not even a particularly well-defined color. In fact, the word comes from the Old English brún, which can refer to just about any dark or fuscuous color; the meaning as we know dates from Middle English in the 14th century. The ancestor of this word was the Proto-Germanic brûnoz, which referred to dark colors with a shine (think polished wood), and which also gave rise to the word “burnish”4.

The ultimate origin of “brown” is the PIE *bher-, which is related to *bheros, from whence words like “beaver” and “bear” (in the sense of a “dark animal”).

    grey

Grey first arrived in English in about 700 C.E. as grǣġ from the Proto-Germanic *grēwjaz and the PIE ghreghwos, which, strangely, means “to shine or glow”. Ironically, IE had a number of roots which refer to grayness (pel-, sal-, smel-, k̑as-, and k̑ei-, the latter of which had a meaning closer to the obsolete meaning of “brown” in the sense of any dark or dull color).

Most Americans spell it “gray”, but for most of the word’s life as we know it, “grey” is the accepted spelling. In fact, the Americanized “gray” didn’t appear until the 19th century, along with the other changes that distanced American English from British English (such as color → colour, organise → organize, and theatre → theater).

    black

Black is everything or nothing: in substractive color, such as paints, it is created by combining all pigments together. In spectral light, it is created by the total absence of visible light spectra. We get it from the recognizable Middle English blak, from the Old English blæc, from the Proto-Germanic *blakaz (which denoted something burnt), and ultimately from the PIE *bhleg- (to burn, or to shine).

There is an interesting double-meaning inherent here: we can understand that the end result of a conflagration is blackened fuel, and in that regard the root makes perfect sense. But technically speaking it refers to burning or shining, which seems the opposite of our notion of blackness. Other words for burning derive from the similar *bʰel- (i.e. the Latin flagrare, from whence “conflagration”). Compare the Old English blæc (“black”) to its companion word, blac (“bright” or “shining”). Previously, Old English used sweart for black, from whence “swarthy” and “sordid”.

Cultural Connotations (updated on 25 June 2010)

When I originally did this entry, I had thought about including a section on the cultural connotations of the various covered colours, but the entry was already one of the longer Wednesday’s Words that I’d done, and the process seemed a bit too daunting. I just today happened across this handy chart that summarizes it. It’s hosted locally (click for a larger version), but comes from the creative folks at Information is Beautiful.

  1. This is not a unique evolution. The color-related root chroma- comes from the Greek word for color, khrōma (χρῶμα), which itself came from khros, which referred to the skin.[]
  2. Roy G. Biv, or Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet[]
  3. A language group associated mostly with peninsular India[]
  4. The similar “polish” is an unrelated Latinate term of uncertain origin.[]
§5700 · June 23, 2010 · Tags: , , ·

2 Comments to “Wednesday’s Word: color”

  1. Jonathan Greenstein says:

    Re the US spellings. Is it not more likely that the spellings are those current in UK English from the period of US independence and it was actually British English that subsequently changed? eg the US spelling for Color as you mention above was from Old French and British usage changed. I think another example would be Tire/Tyre..

    • Ben says:

      You’re right that Old French had, e.g., -or endings, but these became -our Anglo-French (post-Norman Conquest), and this was the source of the word for British English. Academia later became split on the subject, but Webster’s 1828 edition of his dictionary standardized on -or, which is at least partially why it became the norm in American English; Johnson in England used -our.

      The tire/tyre example is outside these easy example groups, however, and is largely as you suggest. “Tyre” came first, but was “tire” everywhere by the 1600s (and naturally America would have retained this spelling); “tyre” somehow revived in England in the 19th century for reasons unexplained, though only in the sense of a “tyre on a car” and not “I tyre late at night”.

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