Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A Study in Brown and in a Brown Study, Part 3

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.

Portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning by Thomas Buchanan Read, 1853 (Christie's). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning by Thomas Buchanan Read, 1853 (Christie’s). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Lamb

    I don’t think I ever understood “livid with rage” to mean some sort of magenta. I always thought it meant some sort of white. And I seed the OED says “Furiously angry, as if pale with rage. colloq.”

  2. Roland Schuhmann

    Without having looked it up any further I just wondered if the meaning violet for braun could be understood as coming from the expression ‘braun und blau’. According to Grimm, DWb 2, 236: “da es aber nie blau und braun, immer braun und blau heiszt, so scheint hier braun die hellere, blau die dunklere farbe anzuzeigen, was durch nnl. blond en blaauw bestätigt wird.”; cf. also the nice text “so einer zuschlagen wuerde, das die schlege braun und blaw wuerden
    [1561 Rotschitz 91]” (DRW 2, 462).

  3. Michael Lamb

    When I posted my last comment on this article I got the message that the post was awaiting moderation. This acknowledgment was still not working for comments on your last article when I tried to repost there a comment of mine which was far more to the point than the comment from me that did get published there, in that it supported your defence of the pronoun “one” “one’s”, but which just disappeared. I have seen several times that posts can disappear in this way, even those in which I answer questions to which you invite answers from readers with credentials in the subject. I think this is a malfunction of the system, not mercurial moderation by you, and wrote asking you about it c/o [email protected], as is suggested on the site.

    The last post to go missing was in reply to John Cowan’s claim that “One feels bad when one trips over one’s own hat”, is as bizarre as “John feels bad when John trips over John’s hat” and that replacing this nominal one with a personal pronoun is commonplace and standard. For now I hope you don’t mind if I try to repost it here:

    So John C, is it commonplace and standard on your side of the pond to say “it’s better to keep oneself to himself” (i.e. Johnself) as far as Anatoly and the singular they are concerned? But since you omit “one … she” and are probably as fed up as I am with the “he/she” and its contortions perhaps you would favour “it’s better to keep oneself to themself”. That has the imprimatur, or at least the loquatur of the OED, though not in that particular locution, with quotations going back to c1450: “THEMSELF 2. In anaphoric reference to a singular pronoun or noun of undetermined gender or where the meaning implies more than one: himself or herself. Cf. they pron. 2, them pron. 4” , the latter with reference to our “they”, of course, with the emollient “This use has sometimes been considered erroneous.” What is the force of that perfect, I wonder? That it has in the past, or has continued to be by some?

    But I do assure you that it’s commonplace and standard on this side of the pond to treat “one” as the pronoun it is in this case, reflexive and all, and parallel to all the others in its accidence, except that it requires an apostrophe in the genitive. Over here it’s “one … s/he” or “one … they” that are bizarre. I will concede that it is avoided altogether by some who perceive it to be a class marker, but that’s probably a misunderstanding of its self-effacing use for the first person. The Queen is the butt of a lot of merriment on that score.

  4. EugeenLV

    Some examples from Latvian for speckled. “Raibs kā dzeņa vēders” as speckled as a belly of woodpecker, “pazīt kā raibu suni” to know someone as a speckled dog. Effect of too much speckled reflects in a verb reibt-reibst, of too much alcohol apreibt reibonis. A hazel grouse in Latvian is mežirbe (forest grouse, Lithuanian jerubė), but strangely enough irbe reminds of its Scandinavian cognates jerpe järpe hjärpe . It could be related to icelandic jarpr for auburn.

  5. John Larsson

    @ Michael (and John). This and other well known idiosyncrasies in Br. English were often reflected in the amusing 20-25 years old BBC sitcom “Keeping up Appearances”, where the author Roy Clarke now and then let the main character, the vainglorious and meddlesome “Mrs. Hyacinth” think of the correctness of her own language.

  6. Michael Lamb

    Roland, I just find this Grimm quote weird. Not that it makes any transformationalistic claim to be a Linguistic Universal, but just in case, one only has to look at the E correlate “black and blue”, not to mention “black and white” (“white and black” seems to be specific to a marked preponderance of white). I haven’t looked it up any further either, but in context it may well refer to some sort of parallelism with “grün und blau” or something peculiar to colour expressions. In the more general sense of the sequential realization of elements in such expressions, I can’t readily call to mind any language in which there is any obvious consistent principle, especially since the gender police have been promoting “female and male” and everything that goes with it!

  7. […] state with certainty that brown had no symbolic value in the choice of that uniform. As regards the name of the hazel grouse, it indeed has a root with wide Indo-European connections. The remark on braun und blau (see the […]

  8. Terry Collmann

    It is worth mentioning the rare surname Brownsword, where “brown” presumably means “bright” rather than “rusty”.

  9. […] of idioms. To be in a brown study occupies a place of honor in my database of proverbial sayings (see a recent post on it). I am also familiar with scornful dogs will eat dirty puddings, but high grin made me think only […]

Comments are closed.