Monday, November 3, 2014

The Etymology of Colours: Part 3

Last Wednesday and Friday, we looked at the etymologies of the colours of the rainbow. Today we're back with a few colours that people often consider, at least in film and television, to not be worthy of the term "colour".


The darkest colour has had an interesting journey into the English language. While its origins are found in the Proto-Indo European (PIE) term *bhleg- which means "to burn, gleam, or flash", it inspired a number of related terms in other languages before its current incarnation in English.

The PIE word *bhleg- became the Proto-Germanic term *blakkaz meaning "burnt" and inspired the Old English term blæc, which gave us the term we use today, black. In addition to meaning "black", it also meant "ink" and "dark".


While grey is commonly considered a dull colour, its etymology is far from dull. The Proto-Germanic term for grey was *grewa-, which evolved into græg in Old English and grei in the Mercian dialect. The word's Proto-Germanic roots are also shared by terms in Dutch, German, Middle Dutch, Old High German, Old Frisian, and Old Norse.


While complete opposites, black and white are the oldest colour terms to have been used by humans. As a result, it's hardly surprising that the origins of white date back to PIE. The PIE term *kwid- also meant "to shine" in addition to referring to the colour. This meaning remained connected to the word as it evolved into the Old English term hwit, whose meanings of "clear", "fair", "bright", and "radiant" all point to its PIE origins.

With all the colours, hues, and shades in the world, we certainly haven't covered all the colours. If we've missed your favourite colour, please tell us its etymology in the comments below. We'll be back on Wednesday with this week's country profile.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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