7 language facts about colour

I recently finished reading a fascinating little book* about the  history and symbolism of colours, and I thought I’d share with you some of the interesting linguistic facts about colour that I learnt.

1. In Roman times blue was a difficult dye to make, and was considered to be the colour of all that was foreign and barbaric. One result of this is that the Romance languages words for ‘blue’ are of Germanic (‘blau‘) or Arabic origin (‘لازورد ‘lāzaward‘ for ‘azure’, deriving from lapis lazuli) as no Latin word existed.

2. Early medieval woad dyers became so wealthy that the regions of France where this blue plant dye was cultivated became known in French as the pays de cocagnecocagne being the ball of woad leaves used by the dyers. 80% of Amiens cathedral was paid for by woad merchants! English has kept the term ‘cockaigne‘ or ‘cockayne’, but we more commonly use the Biblical expression ‘land of milk and honey‘ to mean the same thing.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Land of Cockaigne", 1567.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder‘s “The Land of Cockaigne”, 1567.

3. In Ancient times only three colours reigned supreme in the Western world: black, white and red. The supremacy of red can be seen, for example, in Spanish, where to say the ‘colour red’ is almost a pleonasm, as the word colorado means ‘red’ as well as ‘coloured’ or ‘dyed’, and in Russian красный means ‘red’ and (archaically) ‘beautiful’: Moscow’s Red Square literally means ‘beautiful square’.

My better half and I in Moscow's Red Square after taking the Trans-Siberian train from Vladivostok.

My better half and I in Moscow’s Red Square after crossing Russia in the Trans-Siberian train from Vladivostok.

4. The word ‘candidate’ originates from the Latin candidare ‘to make white or bright’, as office-seekers in ancient Rome wore white togas.

5. English uses a word of Germanic origin (weiss) for ‘white’, but has indirectly kept the old French word blanc in its use of ‘blank’. The colour white is commonly associated with emptiness or nothingness, and this is especially obvious in many French expressions : voix blanche means a toneless voice, nuit blanche is a sleepless night and a chèque en blanc is a blank cheque, to name but a few.

6. ‘Brown’ comes from the Germanic braun, meaning a ‘dark animal’ (possibly a bear?) via the Old English brun which also meant ‘brightness, shining’, an etymology preserved today only in the word ‘burnish‘.

7. Many ancient languages only had one word for the colour of the sea, which combined green, blue and grey. This can still be perceived today in the Welsh, Irish and Breton word glas, which was also used to refer to grass and silver. (By the way did you know that Wikipedia has a whole page devoted to the distinction between blue and green in various languages?)

Finally a question, not a fact: in France green tends to be associated, amongst other things, with something that is free of charge (for example numéro vert, a toll-free number). Have any French colleagues purposely or inadvertently used green in their logos? Let me know in the comments below.

* “Le petit livre des couleurs” by Michel Pastoureau & Dominique Simonnet, Editions du Panama, 2005

Further reading

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