Colors are strange. They’re everywhere we look, but they don’t exist separately from anything else. Everything has a color but nothing is a color. It’s just light bouncing into our eyes, which we happen to call “red” or “blue” or “green.” And this is even more arbitrary than it seems, as people can have long arguments about what color something is (let’s not go back to “the dress” right now, though). Can color etymology teach us anything about how we humans perceive the world?
The color names we’re familiar with today have fascinating histories. They didn’t all arise at the same time, and they come from many disparate sources. We rounded up the stories behind some of most common English color words (though of course, other languages have their own terms).
Black And White
“Black” and “white” are arguably the two most basic colors, so it’s no surprise that these words go back to Proto-Indo-European, the language spoken by a group of people over 4,000 years ago that split off to form a huge number of languages spoken in the West. White comes from ḱweydos, which meant to “shine.” It evolved through Proto-Germanic hwītaz, and entered into Old English as hwīt.
The absolute origin of “black” is a bit more uncertain, but the word appeared in Proto-Germanic as blakaz. This word also meant “burnt,” which makes sense because burnt objects are commonly found in nature, and they are indeed black. This is why it’s believed the word may be from Proto-Indo-European bleg-, related to bleyǵ- (“to burn, to shine, to scorch”).
Linguistically, red is a very important color. Researchers have studied the development of color names, and they found that there seems to be an order to when colors get labeled throughout various histories. Whether a culture has three color words or 50, the first three to develop are basically always black, white and then red (then green, yellow, blue and so on).
It makes sense, then, that the word “red” would go back to the Proto-Indo-European reudh. That’s why the word for “red” is similar across Indo-European languages. For instance, there’s the German rot, Spanish rojo and French rouge.
The word “orange“ was a latecomer to the color name game. The fruit came before the color, as many color names are actually derived from the world of flora. The word orange itself came to English way back from the Sanskrit nāraṅga, which eventually became Old French pome orange (“orange apple”), which became the Middle English orange. Before then, English-speakers would just say geoluhread (“yellow-red”).
There are still lingering remnants from the pre-orange days of English. A red-headed person, for example, would probably be more accurately described as orange-headed. And a red-breasted robin, too, looks a bit closer to orange-breasted.
“Yellow,” like red, goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European. It started with gelhwos, which became Proto-Germanic gelwaz and eventually Middle English’s yelwe. An interesting note is that yellow now begins with a “y” sound, but it originally sounded more like a “g” sound. The Proto-Indo-European gelh– meant both “yellow” and “gleam,” and the association of “gl” specifically with light has lasted since then. A huge number of words pertaining to light start with gl- — glisten, glow, glitter — and they might all be linked back to this same root word.
Green And Gray
“Green” is perhaps the most important color in nature, and the human eye can see more shades of green than any other color. The root of modern-day “green” comes from the Proto-Indo-European greh-, which meant “to grow.” This root also gives us grass, graze and other words that have to do with plants and nature.
Oddly enough, “gray” also comes from greh- too, though it’s not entirely clear why. “Gray” is also one of the United States’ contributions to color names, as the British spelling is “grey.” The change was made by Noah Webster, who argued that “gray” makes more sense.
Blue is another color we frequently encounter in nature. Both the sea and the sky are blue, and one of the most famous images of our planet is called “Blue Marble.” Blue hasn’t always been a regular part of the lexicon, however. Historians obsess over Homer’s description in the Odyssey of a “wine-dark sea,” as wine usually doesn’t come in blue. And if you trace the word “blue” back to Proto-Indo-European, you get blew-, which means “yellow, blond, gray.” Which, clearly, isn’t “blue” as we understand it.
Despite the fact that blue seems like a perfectly natural color, it doesn’t really arise much in the plant or animal world. The sky was more likely to be labeled as “light” or “dark” than “blue” thousands of years ago. It wasn’t really until the color blue started showing up in art that it started also showing up in language. The Egyptians, for example, first started using their word for blue when they were importing lapis from Afghanistan to create bright blue pigments. Blue dyes were slow to spread across the world, and so, too, were the words for blue.
Like blue, “purple” is tied to the world of pigments and dyes. The Romans ground up a particular shellfish — which they called purpura — to make a dye that became very popular. It was particularly sought-after by the rich, and it was the color of royalty for centuries. The word purpura (which came from the older Greek porphura) made it into the Anglo-Saxon language as purpul, which later evolved into “purple.”
Violet And Pink
Both “violet” and “pink” come from flowers of the same name. “Violet” comes from the Latin word viola, which simply referred to the flowers that were (you guessed it) violet in color. “Pink” was also the name of a flower, though it’s not a very well-known flower. And no one is entirely sure why the flower was named “pink” in the first place. It could be related to “pinking shears,” used in crafting, but otherwise it’s an etymological mystery.