07 June 2018

Colour is all around us, but... Where do the different names come from?

Colours. Everywhere we look, our vision is assaulted with a riot of colour, screaming and demanding our attention. Whether it’s that guy at the post office rocking the especially LOUD Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, right down to the socks full of holes poking out of his sandals, to the colourful packaging that holds our favourite things we purchase at the grocery store, there’s literally zero escape.

White and black are not colours, specifically. White is ALL colours combined (crazy, right?) and black is the ABSENCE of colour. Just like going into a dark room that’s as dark as pitch. On my desk, there’s a whole mess of colour (let’s ignore that my office is completely disorganized, shall we? ;) ). I love bright colour. Green is my go-to favourite, but I like colours, period.

Oranges, we know, were the reason for the colour, ‘orange’ being named. But, what about the rest of the colours? And there’s scads and scads of colours on the spectrum. Let’s just stick with the basics:








According to scientists, it’s in our vision! More specifically, how our eyes work. Some colour wavelengths are easier to see than others are and therefore were named early on. According to Vittorio Loreto and friends,

The color spectrum clearly exists at a physical level of wavelengths, humans tend to react most saliently to certain parts of this spectrum often selecting exemplars for them, and finally comes the process of linguistic color naming, which adheres to universal patterns resulting in a neat hierarchy… 

To solve the hierarchy of colour puzzle, there was a small group of scientists that decided to put together some computer ‘people’ or ‘agents’ specifically designed to NOT have any knowledge prior to colour names (as we understand them: red from orange, from purple, to green). The first agent, which is designated the ‘speaker’ of the group, is shown a couple objects and that agent, or ‘speaker,’ refers to the object by whatever colour (red, blue, whatever). The other agent, the hearer, then has to guess which item, and thus color, the speaker referred to. Scientists repeated this until all the agents came to a consensus on color names. A key feature of this simulation was its adherence to the limits of human vision. Our eyes are more sensitive to some wavelengths of light, or colors, than others. The agents in the simulation were not required to distinguish between hues that a human eye could not tell apart.

At any rate, we’re here to discuss the colours’ names’ ORIGINS. As we already know, orange was named for the fruit, not the colour naming the fruit. But what about the others?

Black is actually a Swedish word. Different dialects in the world have their own way of calling it, but in simplified translation, ‘black,’ the word itself, means ‘ink.’ It also means ‘dark,’ spelled ‘blaec’ in Old English, and was derived from Old Nordic, ‘blakkr.’

White is an interesting word, as well. White, as I mentioned earlier, is ALL colour, where its counterpart, black, is the ABSENCE of colour. Strange, right? I guarantee you, if you were to take all the paints from your child’s cabinet and mix them together, you wouldn’t come up with white. You’d come up with a rather...disturbingly coloured mess. I promise you, it’s a waste of time (I tried it in HS as an experiment in art class. My instructor wasn’t impressed, but I did find a use for it, and I didn’t use a tonne of paint, because, I mean, wastefulness isn’t alright!). 

Now, let’s tackle the rainbow, our friend Roy G Biv. You’re going to love this!

Red – In PIE (Proto-Indo-English), this word meant ‘reudh’ or ‘red/ruddy’. Other languages had their own interpretation, but tapping back into our Old English roots, it was written as ‘read.’ As in, yes, THAT ‘read.’

Orange – as previously mentioned, was named for the fruit, not the other way around.

Yellow – Thousands of years ago, this colour was largely associated with the colour Green, and in PIE is known as ‘ghel’ meaning both ‘yellow’ and ‘green.’ Revisiting our Old English roots, this colour was spelled out as ‘geolu’ or ‘geolwe’.

Green – In PIE, this word meant ‘grow.’ So, it would make sense that ‘growth’ of any kind would be associated with this colour. Spelled as ‘ghre,’ Old English spelled it as ‘grene’ and meant not just the colour itself, but ‘young’ and ‘immature.’

Blue – This colour was often confused with yellow because of the PIE translation back in the day. The PIE word back then was ‘bhle-was’ and meant ‘light-coloured, blue, blond yellow’ and had the root of ‘bhel’ which meant ‘to shine’. English words, a lot of them, have French origin, blue being one of them. Old French (which was one of the ‘vulgar’ Latin dialects from between the 9TH and 13TH centuries AD), blue was written ‘bleu’ (which is how it’s still spelled in French now in present day) and ‘blew’ and meant all kinds of things, including the colour blue itself.

Indigo – This one took a little tracking down to find the meaning and its origin. Like its other Rainbow companions, there’s different etymologies for its origin, largely the two I found were English and Greek. Referring to both the blue pigment used as a dye and to the indigo plants, it’s named for the indigo plant, which is a bluish purple colour that was used to make indigo dye. When Sir Isaac Newton was making his colour wheel, Indigo was the only tertiary colour he included.

Violet – This colour’s name is drived from the violet flower. While Violet and purple look quite similar, they aren’t the same colour at all. Purple itself isn’t even on the specturm of visible light. Purple is a dichromatic colour – meaning it comes from the mixing of two primary colours: blue and red. Violet is on the visual spectrum of light, toward the left-hand-side. I wasn’t able to really find anything definitive about this colour, how its origins came about, aside from being named for the flower.

Colours are all around us, and it’s something that we seem to just take for granted that they’ve always been there and will always be. Hopefully this little blurb will help you stop and appreciate the colours that are ever-present in your lives.

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