Earlier today, this peculiar etymological twist cropped up on the HH Twitter feed:
AUBURN hair takes its name from the Latin for ‘white’.— Haggard Hawks Words (@HaggardHawks) 27 May 2016
And so here’s a bit more about it.
Although nowadays auburn refers to red hair, the word itself is rooted in the Latin word albus, meaning “white”. That’s also where the word albinism comes from, as well as album (which originally referred to a white stone tablet on which Roman edicts would be displayed), albedo (the amount of light reflected by a surface), a cleric’s alb, and the albumen or white of an egg.
Then of course there’s this:
THOST is an old name for animal dung. White thost or ‘ALBUM GRÆCUM’ was dried dog poop, once used to make medicines. pic.twitter.com/wD3Q4IhTOS— Haggard Hawks Words (@HaggardHawks) 27 May 2016
But we won’t go into all that now. So what about auburn?
Well, the Latin word albus led to a derivative alburnus, that was used to mean “nearly white” or “off-white”. That in turn drifted into Old French as alborne, which was brought across the Channel to England as aborne or auborne in the mid-fifteenth century.
On it’s earliest appearance in English, aborne was used to refer to a yellowish-white or brown-white colour, probably equivalent to what we’d call beige or buff today. But it didn’t take long for aborne to be confused with brown, which in the Middle English period was still called broune, or browne. This similarity eventually led the meaning of auburn to change from “yellowish-white” to “reddish-brown”, and it’s this meaning that’s remained in place ever since.