Sunday, 3 September 2017


I did look at some basic colours in July 2015 under COLOURFUL LANGUAGE. If you want to know the origins of colours such as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, black, white, gold, silver, purple, brown, beige, cerise, chartreuse, cyan, ecru, magenta, mauve, taupe, or puce, simply follow the link. For other colours, read on

Amber - the name of the colour comes from the substance ambergris, secreted in the intestines of sperm whales and used in perfumes, itself from the Arabic anbar referring to the product rather than its colour.

Amethesyt - from the same source as the gemstone, this representing Latin amethystus, itself from Greek amethustos translating as 'anti-intoxicant' as it was once believed to be a remedy for drunkeness.

Apricot - from the name of the fruit, which can be traced through Catalan aberoc, Portuguese albricoque, Arabic al-birquq, Byzantine Greek berikokkia, and ultimately from the Latin (malum) praecoquum telling us it was the 'early ripening fruit'.

Auburn - now this will confuse you, for the reddish-brown colour has only been associated with this word since the 16th century. Prior to that the English word meant 'whitish, yellowish-white' and comes from Old French auborne and Medieval Latin alburnus 'off-white' and ultimately derived from Latin albus 'white'.

Azure - a colour originally made from the stone lapis lazuli. This came from Latin lazuri and lost the initial letter when the French considered it to be the definite article. This comes from Greek lazour and ultimately the Turkestan place name Lajward. This was mentioned in the writings of Marco Polo and was where the stone was originally collected.

Burgundy - named after the administartive region of France, itself taking the name of the Gothic tribe who lived there, The baurgjans taking their name as 'the dwellers of the fortified places'.

Cobalt - from the name of the metal, itself from the German kobold meaning 'household goblin'. This was down to the ore obtained from the Harz Mountains containing arsenic and sulphur, these making the miners ill but thought to be caused by the goblin of the mountain.

Copper - takes its name from the metal, itself from Latin cuprum and Greek Kyprios meaning 'Cyprus' for this was one of the original mining sites.

Cream - the colour of the dairy product, itself from Middle French creme'chrism, holy oil' and ultimately from the Latin chrisma 'ointment'.

Crimson - came to English from Old Spanish cremeson meaning 'belonging to the kermes'. These louse-like insects were the source of the red dye. However if we trace 'kermes' we find this comes from Arabic qirmiz and ultimately Sanskrit krmi-ja meaning 'that produced by a worm'. Hence the insect game the name to a colour which gave its name to an insect which gave its name to a colour.

Emerald - came to English from Old French, Latin, Greek, Semitic, Herbrew and ultimately Arabic barq or 'lightning'.

Fawn - takes its name from the colour of the young deer, although originally it meant 'young animal' and shares its root with 'foetus' which was originally used to mean 'offspring'.

Gentian - said to be named from the plant from which the colour is named, itself taken from the king of ancient Illyria named Gentius who is said to have discovered its properties.

Ginger - a long trail through Old English, Latin, Greek and Prakrit brings us to two possible origins. Here we either have Sanskrit srngam vera 'horn body' and a description of its shape; or Malayam spice names inchi-ver 'root'.

Hazel - named from the colour of the nut, itself almost unchanged since Proto-Indo-European was spoken.

Heliotrope - a Greek term literally translating as 'the plant turning its leaves and flowers to the sun'.

Jet - originates from Greek gagates lithos 'the stone of Gages' which is where it was collcted.

Khaki - a Persian word meaning 'dust'.

Lavender - comes from the Latin lividus 'bluish, livid' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European leue 'to wash'.

Lemon - derived from the fruit, itself traceable through a line including Old French, Arabic, Persian, Balinese and Malay where limaw probably meant 'citrus fruit' - the same as is found for 'lime' below.

Lilac - not used as a colour until 1801, this is derived from the name of the shrub introduced to Europe through Turkey, where it was known as leylak and likely derived from its native Balkan name.

Lime - see 'lemon' above.

Maroon - coming to English from the French where marron meant 'chestnut'. Here the likely origin is Greek maraon 'sweet chestnut'.

Mauve - named from the French mauve meaning 'mallow' as the colour is close to that of the mallow plant. However the dye was not obtained from that plant but was the first dye not produced from animal or vegetable matter. This process was unique, actually creating a whole new technology which formed the basis of many other processes - the whole fascinating story is told by Simon Garfield in Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World - a book I can certainly recommend.

Navy - obviously the colour used by the Royal Navy, the dye obtained from what became known as the navy bean. Clearly it takes its name from the branch of the armed forces, all of which lead back to Latin navis a plural form based on Proto-Indo-European nau 'boat'.

Ochre - named from the clay soil from which the pigment was obtained. The etymological trail can be traced back to the Greek ochra but ends there and the original meaning unknown.

Olive - no surprise to find it comes from the fruit, itself named from the tree and ultimately seen in an Aegean language meaning simply 'oil'.

Peach - another named from the fruit, it is derived from Persis or 'Persia' and even once known as the Persian apple'.

Pearl - obviously from the gem, itself having two possible origins. If this refers to the pearl itself it could be likened to the shape of the fruit of the pear tree, itself referring to the tree. However it seems more likely to be derived from the oyster in which it grows, a creature known in Latin as pernula 'sea mussel', but also used to refer to 'ham' as it was seen as resembling the oyster shell.

Pink - named from the flower, itself from the Latin verb pungere and Proto-Indo-European peuk both meaning 'to prick, pierce'. The flower uses this name as the petals have a perforated appearance, and we still use the word in this sense, albeit only when cutting with pinking shears.

Ruby - from the colour of the gemstone, itself from the Latin rubeus or 'red'.

Ruddy - only used as a euphemism since 1914, a ruddy interesting fact and the start of a trail which ends with Proto-Indo-European reudh meaning both 'red' and 'ruddy' and the only word for a colour thus far known to have been used in Proto-Indo-European.

Sable - as a colour only seen in heraldry, where it is black. However the word comes from the animal, although the creatures coat is brown. It seems likely the use of this for 'black' comes from the custom where the coat of the sable was dyed black and worn when in mourning.

Sapphire - traceable to Sanskrit, where sanipriya meant 'sacred to the planet Saturn'.

Scarlet - first seen in English in the 13th century when used to mean 'rich cloth' which was often, but not always, red. This was likely from a Germanic term where scar 'sheared' joined with lachen 'cloth'.

Tan - the colour is derived from the Latin tannum 'crushed oak bark', this used as a dye. Interestingly Breton tann meaning 'oak tree' is related to German Tanne 'fir tree'. Clearly the two are quite different in shape and one deciduous the other evergreen, which almost certainly shows this colour is ultimately from a very early word, one possibly referring to 'a tree' or maybe even as simplistic as 'plant'.

Titian - named from a person, specifically the Venetian artist Tiziano Vecellio (1490-1576) and a reference to the light auburn hair colouring often found in his work.

Turquoise - as a colour first seen in 1853, this comes from Old French pierre turqueise 'Turkish stone'. Thus the name comes from the country, itself thought to come from Phrygian ank 'angled, crooked' and a reference to a gorge where these people were first identified.

Ultramarine - from Latin ultramarinus and ultimately Proto-Indo-European al mori literally 'beyond the water' and so called as the mineral was imported from Asia.

Vermilion - is from Old French vermeillon 'red lead, cinnabar', and derived from vermeil which comes from Latin vermiculus 'a little worm' and from here shares the same origins as found in 'crimson' above and began as Proto-Indo-European wer 'to turn, bend' which is the basis for the modern word 'worm'.

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