If you have read the previous parts of this “study,” you may remember that brown is defined as a color between orange and black, but lexicographical sources often abstain from definitions and refer to the color of familiar objects. They say that brown is the color of mud, dirt, coffee, chocolate, hazel, or chestnut. Sometimes compounds like golden-brown turn up. Despite such differences, most people associate brown with a dark hue. The standard Latin gloss of Engl. brown is fuscus “dark” (compare the verb obfuscate). In using descriptive adjectives for “brown,” language follows the ancient trend (green is the color of vegetation, red is the color of ore, and so forth). Modern Greek has lost the ancient names of this color and uses a word having the root of the noun chestnut, while Russian speakers refer to cinnamon, an unexpectedly exotic product (koritsa—korichnevyi). The more “genuine” Russian word for “brown” (byryi, stress on the first syllable) is probably a borrowing: it seems to have been taken over along with brown horses. Romance speakers went the same way, but their lender was Germanic.
If we consider that brown is an intermediate color, we may perhaps understand the uses of the epithets mentioned last week. Dante’s “brown [that is, clotted] blood” is about the blood that lost its glow and no longer looked red. Red is likewise a broad term: we call crimson and scarlet objects red, but Tyrian purple and especially Tuscan red are almost black. Russian words beginning with ryab– are applied to speckled creatures and objects. Quite properly, the hazel-grouse is called ryabchik (-chik is a diminutive suffix), but the Russian for “rowan tree” (“mountain ash”) is ryabina (stress on the second syllable), though the bright berries of the mountain ash look shining red, especially in winter.
The standard epithet Homer applied to the sea was wine-colored, and today it causes surprise. However, there is probably no riddle. The colors of the wines the Ancient Greeks produced varied from inky black to nearly clear. Since waves reflect the color of the sky, we find their surface blue or black. A look at the pictures by realistic painters shows that under the surface tossing waves often appeared green to them. The question is not whether sea waves can be wine-colored, because, considering how many brands of wine there are, they certainly can, but why Homer associated them with wine rather than with some other dark liquid. Can we conclude that in his time dark wines were especially popular? The brown waves of Old English poetry mean simply “dark waves.” If we are puzzled, it happens because, as pointed out, today the color brown evokes the image of chestnuts, hazel, and chocolate rather than sea water. In a modern poem, chestnut-colored, chocolate-colored, or wine-colored waves would sound either incongruous or pretentious. Yet only usage, not color perception, has changed since the days of the Odyssey and Beowulf. The idea that “primitive cultures” had an indistinct idea of colors should be ruled out by definition. In similar fashion, we wear neither chiton nor toga, but at one time people wore both and would have reacted to our expensive torn jeans with amazement and justifiable horror.
We are in more trouble with brown meaning “violet” (see Part 2 of the present essay). Recent etymological dictionaries trace this sense of brown (or rather brun ~ braun, because only German is involved) to Latin prunum “plum.” If we were dealing with poetic diction, we could accept the idea of Latin influence, but the word has wide currency in dialects, and one wonders to what extent Latin was instrumental in the emergence of brown “violet.” I would again like to cite a parallel from Slavic. The Russian for plum is sliva, a cognate of Latin lividus “livid” (some of our readers may remember what I once wrote about movable s, or s-mobile). It is instructive to follow the transformation of this color name. Although dictionaries differ when it comes to details, all of them say approximately the same about livid. I found the glosses “ashen or pallid,” “bluish gray,” “purplish,” “dull blue,” “grayish blue,” and “black-and-blue.” They agree that the color of a bruise is livid and that livid, when used in everyday speech, is understood as “furiously angry.” But many people think that livid means “red,” and it is easy to understand them, because red is the color of the face flushed with anger.
Another instructive case is lurid (from Latin luridus “wan or yellowish”). In English, the word surfaced only in the eighteenth century but since that time has changed from “sallow, sickly pale” to “shining with a red glare; yellow-brown.” Shelley begins his narrative poem Queen Mab so:
“How wonderful is Death,
Death and his brother Sleep!
One, pale as yonder waning moon
With lips of lurid blue;
The other rosy as the morn….”
In Shelley’s language, lurid meant, as it did in Latin, “deadly pale,” but don’t miss “yellow-brown” and especially “shining with a red glare” above. Note also how the contextual use of livid (“angry”) affected its main sense. I have no explanation for German dialectal braun “violet,” but, before we jump to conclusions and refer to borrowing and homonymy, it may be useful to remember how unpredictable the interplay of color names sometimes is.
It remains for me to say something about brown study. To be in a brown study means “to be in intense reverie.” Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is often described in this state of mind. Why brown? Some people thought of “corruption” and traced brown in this idiom to barren or to some German word. The OED dismissed the reference to German as untenable and suggested that brown here means “gloomy” (first published 1888). As far as I can judge, this little problem of English phraseology has attracted little or no attention, so that it might be useful to quote an anonymous reviewer (The Nation 48, 1889, p. 288).
The journal review of the OED’s first volume (A and B) is laudatory, but its author wrote:
“In only one instance, so far as we have observed, have they [the editors] laid themselves open to criticism…; and the variation from their usual practice is noteworthy enough to merit special comment. It occurs in the case of the somewhat peculiar expression brown study. The adjective here has assuredly the general idea of ‘deep,’ profound,’ ‘abstracted.’ It is hard to fix upon the phrase the sense of ‘gloomy meditation’, by which Johnson defined it; and the particular meaning given to it in this dictionary of ‘an idle and purposeless reverie’ is certainly not common. But it is in the explanation of its origin that conjecture appears here for once to have triumphed over judgment. The meaning is declared to have apparently come in the first place from brown in the sense of ‘gloomy,’ but that this sense of the adjective has to a great extent been forgotten. When, however, we turn to the adjective itself, we find that so far from such a sense having been forgotten, there is not the slightest record that it ever existed…. …the origin of the meaning of brown study remains in the dark as ever. It may be added that stiff seems formerly to have been an equivalent expression. In the romance of William of Palerne one of the characters is represented as having fallen ‘into a styf studie’….”
Who could have written this well-informed review? Richard Bailey (in Mugglestone, 2000) identified the author as Thomas R. Lounsbury, though it was indeed originally printed as anonymous, like all reviews in The Nation.
So it goes: brown “red,” brown “violet,” brown blood (as opposed to blue blood!), brown waves, brown nights, in a brown study, brownie, Father Brown, and Good Mrs. Brown.
Headline image credit: Mountain Ash (Rowan Tree) in the winter. Photo by Hella Delicious. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.