8 June 2016

10 Colour Names

A few weeks ago, this intriguing factoid popped up on the HH Twitter feed:

It’s an interesting story, which we touched on again in this week’s YouTube video, all to do with the names and etymologies of 10 colours—including the perfect word to describe the perfect colour of a perfectly ripe banana (spoiler alert: it’s not yellow), to the reason why magenta is called magenta, and what connects a Tudor folk dance to a bowl of porridge and to a pile of goose droppings. Truly, it’s an embarrassment of riches.

But back to oranges. Yes, that fact above is completely true: the earliest record of an orange in the English language comes from the early 1400s; the earliest record of something being described as orange in colour, dates from as relatively recently as 1557. But things have been orange coloured since—well, forever. 

Take foxes, for instance. They and their orangey-brown fur have been around ever so slightly longer than the English language (a few hundred thousand years, give or take), which meant that writers in pre-orange-importing times had to get creative when it came to describing what colour they were. As in this line, from Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale:

His colour was bitwixe yelow and reed,
And tipped was his tayl and both his eeris 
With blak, unlyk the remenant of hise heeris;
His snowte smal, with glowynge eyen tweye.
[His colour was between yellow and red,
And tipped was his tail and both his ears
With black, unlike the remainder of his hair;
His snout small, with two glowing eyes.]
With no word for the colour orange, Chaucer—writing in the 1390s—had to resort to describing the fox in terms of yellow and red. And things stayed like that for another century-and-a-half, until a connection between the colour orange and it’s corresponding fruit was made, and the English language finally gained a separate name for the second colour of the rainbow. (Shameless plug #4,229: there’s more on this in the HH factbook, Word Drops.)

So that’s that. But, just when you think English and it’s colours are all sorted, you find out this:

  1. I am not getting this one. When I google French Pink I get a lot of pink tones, none yellow.
    Or is this a joke viz. calling a rat a siberian hamster? Either one is fascinating.

  2. French pink or "stil de grain yellow" is a pigment traditionally made from the immature berries of the buckthorn species Rhamnus saxatalis. An archaic 17th century name for the colour was 'pinke'. The first recorded use of 'pinke' as a colour name in English for this yellow pigment was in 1598. The names 'stil de grain yellow' came into use in the early to mid-18th century replacing the former name pinke.