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Red and yellow and pink and green…

By Katherine Shaw

Many of us learn the colours of the rainbow from an early age, but have you ever wondered where the names for the different shades we see around us come from?

The origins of many of the words for the colours of the visible spectrum go back far in time, and are ultimately unknown. But the origins of others are better recorded: ‘orange’ as a colour term postdates its appearance as the name of a fruit, ‘pink’ originates from the popular name for flowers of the genus Dianthus, and ‘purple’ derives from the Greek porphura, which was the name of the dye obtained from the secretions of a certain species of mollusc in classical antiquity.

But why limit our descriptions to ‘blueish-green’ or ‘reddy-brown’ when we have such a rich palette of colour terms at our disposal? Any young artist worthy of his Crayola crayons will have heard of such evocative attributives as maroon, periwinkle, or burnt sienna, the origins of which are often very interesting indeed.

Colours to dye for?

Many chromatic labels take their cue from the natural world, with materials such as ebony, ivory, and coral, precious stones including turquoise, ruby, and sapphire, and flowers like violet, magnolia, and periwinkle providing the perfect tonal match. Animals, too, have lent appellations that include taupe (from the French for ‘mole’, originating from the Latin talpa), puce (from the French for ‘flea’), and teal (a member of the duck family with this shade of green around the eyes). The names of edible plants also conjure vivid synaesthetic associations, from a juicy raspberry, peach, or cerise, to a mouth-watering pistachio or maroon (from the French marron meaning ‘chestnut’).

Another common means of denotation is the original source of extraction for different coloured dyes. Sepia, for example, comes from the Greek word meaning ‘cuttlefish’ owing to the colour of its ink. Indigo was originally the name of a dye created using the leaves of a plant of the genus Indigofera, while ultramarine comes from the Medieval Latin ultramarinus meaning ‘beyond the sea’, since its original source was lapis lazuli obtained from outside of Italy.

Among the earliest pigments to have been used in cave paintings are browns with names relating to the natural materials from which they derive. The term sienna originates from the name of the Italian city from where the pigment was predominately extracted during the Renaissance. Similarly, umber is obtained from clay originally found in the Umbria region of Italy. Other geographical influences include burgundy from the eponymous wine-producing region (first used as the name of a colour in 1881), and magenta, from a dye that was named in honour of the Franco-Sardinian battle that took place in the Italian city of the same name in 1859.

You say potato…

Even with this seemingly endless range of linguistic possibilities on the tips of our tongues, are colours — like beauty — in the eye of the beholder? Perhaps your laurel green will be somebody else’s myrtle; their midnight blue your navy. In fact, when different language systems are compared, the distinctions become even more blurred. As Brent Berlin and Paul Kay demonstrated in their 1969 study Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, the number of basic colour terms varies across different cultures. The English language classifies blue and green as two distinct colours, for example, while Chinese has a character that encompasses both. Italian, meanwhile, has two separate linguistic categories for what we call blue — blu and azzurro — making it easier for native speakers to discriminate between different shades along this part of the spectrum.

These examples inform the debate surrounding linguistic relativity — whether the language we speak influences the way in which we think — with arguments to support the impact of both biological and cultural-linguistic factors. Whatever your opinion, it is clear that colour terms conjure a spectrum of multisensory experiences as we attempt to put the world around us into words. So the next time you think to compliment somebody on their lovely yellow sweater, remember that they might actually see it as jonquil, citreous, or jessamy.

Katherine Shaw is an Editor in the English Language Teaching division at Oxford University Press and was tickled pink to be asked to contribute to the Oxford Dictionaries blog, where this article originally appeared.

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Recent Comments

  1. M

    it’s true that Chinese has a term encompassing green and blue, but it also has distinct words corresponding to each color.

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