Friday, October 31, 2014

The Etymology of Colours: Part 2

On Wednesday we looked at the origins of words we use for colours, focusing on the first three colours of the visible light spectrum: red, orange, and yellow. Today we'll be going through the remaining colours.


In Middle English and Old English, the colour green was grene. In Proto-Germanic *gronja- was the root of green, grass, and grow, as well as the root of the word for green in a number of other related languages such as Dutch, Danish, Old Frisian, Old High German, Old Norse, and Old Saxon.

Earlier, the term in Proto-Indo European (PIE) languages is thought to have been *ghre-, which means grow, since green is the colour of most vegetation.


The story of blue is fascinating. The word comes from the Old French term blo, which generally referred to a range of colours and shades including what we would now consider blues, greys, blonds, and other pale colours. The term is thought to have evolved from the Proto Germanic term *blæwaz, which gave rise to the term in a huge number of languages.

While in PIE languages the term for blue is fairly widespread, what really makes the colour fascinating is the lacunae it has left in other world languages. While in English the colours green and blue are fairly distinct, there are plenty of languages where the two colours are referred to by one term. Several languages in Asia, including Old Chinese, Old Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese did not distinguish between the two and refer to a concept of a blue-green range that doesn't really exist in English.

The term for blue is thought to be a latecomer to the vocabularies of many languages since the dye is so difficult to make, while autumnal shades such as reds, oranges, and yellows were easier to make and therefore required terms sooner.


For many English speakers, designating the colour between blue and violet seems arbitrary and difficult to define. Its presence in the spectrum is thought to be a result of Sir Isaac Newton's superstition against the number six.

The colour chosen by Newton was none other than indigo, a term whose origins can be found in the Greek name for the colour dye which came from India. The Greek word indikon (ινδικόν) became indicum in Latin before inspiring indico in Spanish and endego in Portuguese, which are considered to be the root of the Dutch word indigo. The Dutch term entered the English language in the 16th century.


The last colour in the rainbow is violet. The term came from Old French by way of Latin where it was viola in reference to both the colour and the flower. It is thought to have come from a PIE language somewhere in the Mediterranean. During the 14th century, the term came to Middle English from the diminutive of the Old French viole.

After the weekend, we'll be back to look at the terms for some of the colours outside of the visible light spectrum.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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