With the long hours of sunshine most of the United Kingdom has been experiencing this week, I was drawn to the infinite number of colours picked out by the sunlight. I have never been able to understand the modern need to use foodstuffs for the names of colours, especially biscuit – not all biscuits are the same colour.
Examine a colour chart from the local hardware outlet and it reads more like a menu. However there are still the original colours and surely those cannot have come from household items. Hence I turned my attention to the etymology of the more traditional colours.
Red – is a Germanic word, which can be traced back to a Proto-Indo-European root reudh ‘ruddy’. The theoretical original European tongue used this solely to refer to hair colour.
Orange – surprisingly not used for the colour until 1540, previously this referred to the fruit and, prior to that, the tree. Just where the fruit and tree got the name is uncertain.
Yellow – comes from the Proto-Germanic gelwaz and Proto-Indo-European ghel ‘to shine’, and used for bright metals, particularly gold.
Green – another which can be traced to a Proto-Indo-European root where ghre means literally ‘grow’ and used to refer to the colour of living plants.
Blue – came to our shores from Old French blo meaning ‘pale, pallid, wan’ even ‘light-coloured, blond, discoloured’. Here the Proto-Indo-European is bhel ‘to shine or flash’.
Indigo – never a part of the rainbow before the early seventeenth century, this comes from the Spanish indico or Portuguese endego and a reference to the blue dye from India.
Violet – predictably this was named from the flower, first used as a colour in the late fourteenth century, this is ultimately from the Latin viola and derived from an early and unknown Mediterranean word.
Black – a word which has the identical root as the colour blue. Here the Proto-Indo-European bhel developed from ‘to shine, flash, burn’ in the sense of the residue left behind after a fire, that which had been ‘blackened’ or ‘burned’.
White – the Proto-Indo-European root here is kweit meaning ‘to shine’.
Gold – here the meaning is again ‘to shine’ but this time the reference is to metals.
Silver – a later word than gold and for very good reason. Whilst there is no doubt silver was used decoratively, the original reference was to ‘money’, and possibly prior to that to the smelting or refining of the metal.
Purple – originated as the name of the shellfish from which the colour was produced. The earlier etymology is uncertain but is certainly related to the Latin purpura which, in some contexts, was used to refer to ‘finery, splendid attire’.
Brown – ultimately the Old English brun shares an origin with the words ‘bear’ and ‘beaver’. The idea of a ‘brown or dark animal’ is also seen in the Greek phrynos, again meaning ‘the brown animal’.
Beige – not seen as a colour before 1879 it was used twenty years earlier to refer to ‘fine woolen fabric’ and prior to that from the Old French as ‘natural colour of wool and cotton’.
Cerise – again not seen before the nineteenth century and from the French cerise or ‘cherry’.
Chartreuse – came to be the name of a colour as it was likened to the pale apple-green colour of the liqueur of this name, itself derived from the monastery of a Carthusian order of monks, named from the mountain in the French Alps where the monastery was built.
Cyan – not seen as a colour in English until 1889, it is not an Indo-European word but related to the Hittite kuwannan or ‘copper blue’.
Ecru – is a French word, it is not seen in English before 1869, and means ‘raw, unbleached’.
Magenta – first used in 1860 and named after the Battle of Magenta in Italy. Here a combined French and Sardinian force defeated the Austrians shortly before the dye producing the colour was first produced.
Mauve – is a French word and not used in English before 1859. It comes from Old French and ultinmately from Latin malva, itself a reference to the mallow plant from which the dye was first obtained.
Taupe – is not seen in English until 1906, it comes from the French taupe meaning ‘a mole’, the colour of the mole’s skin being the same dark brownish-grey colour.
Puce – first seen in English in 1787, this is from the French puce meaning ‘flea’ and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European plou with the same meaning and seemingly seen as the colour of fleas.
There are also colours called Hooker’s Green, Fuzzy Wuzzy, Little Boy Blue, Meat Brown, Neon Carrot, New Car, Outer Space, Peru, Screaming Green, Shampoo, Waterspout, and Zomp, none of which I shall be attempting to explain.