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Rainbow Connections: The Language of Colour

Rainbow Connections: The Language of Colour

Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re taking part in the WeCreateEDU
group collab all about colour! So we’ll be exploring the rainbow connections
of colour words and uncovering how they’re linked not only by dyes and pigments, but
also by diseases, psychoactive drugs, Homeric epic, and monsters! The word colour comes into Middle English
from Anglo-Norman and Old French, ultimately from Latin. Latin color in turn comes from the Old Latin
form colos meaning “covering”, from the Proto-Indo-European root *kel- “to cover,
conceal, save”, also the source of words such as conceal, hole, hollow, and clandestine,
as well as Calypso, the name of the sea nymph in Homer’s Odyssey, who attempts to keep
the hero Odysseus on her island Ogygia rather than let him return home, effectively concealing
him from the world. The musical word calypso, by the way, probably
comes from an unrelated African language, though perhaps influenced in form by the name
Calypso. But getting back to the word colour, the sense
of the word developed from the idea of “that which covers”, emphasizing the outer appearance
of something. Now before English adopted the word colour,
one Old English word for the concept was hiw, from which we get the modern word hue, and
this highlights the fact that when we talk about colour, we’re actually referring to
a number of different parameters, including hue. In technical terms, hue is about the frequency
of light, but there are other parameters that determine how we perceive a colour, such as
saturation, lightness, and brightness. So for instance pink is a pale red, and brown
is a dark orange, and colours like white and black involve multiple frequencies of light. But for our purposes in looking at the language
of colour, we want to consider what are called basic colour terms rather than the physical
properties of light. By basic colour terms, we mean distinct basic
colours, so for instance not dark green or forest green or emerald or lime. Some languages don’t make a distinction
between what are in English the distinct colours green and blue, a category that is sometimes
referred to by scholars as “grue”, which is referred to as burou in the language of
the Himba people of Namibia, and other languages make finer distinctions than are made in English,
such as Russian which has distinct words for dark blue and light blue, siniy and goluboy
respectively. So what are considered basic colour terms
can differ from language to language and culture to culture, and this is a subject of much
debate in the field of anthropological linguistics. Brent Berlin and Paul Kay wrote a very influential
book in 1969 called Basic Colour Terms: Their Universality and Evolution examining the colour
words from many languages around the world, and proposed that languages divide up colours
in a predictable pattern dependent on the number of basic colour terms the language
has. Thus, according to their system, Level 1 languages
just make a distinction between black/dark/cool and white/light/warm, and all languages have
at least these two categories of colour. If a language has three basic colour terms,
then the third one in addition to black and white is red. That’s level 2. With level 3, either green or yellow is added
to the list, and at level 4 both green and yellow. Level 5 adds blue to the list and level 6
adds brown. At level 7 various other colours can be added
in such as purple, pink, orange, or grey. Now the work of Berlin and Kay has since come
under some criticism, and there is a general debate among scholars between the universalist
view that colour cognition is universal in all humans and that colour categories follow
a consistent pattern across all languages, as in the work of Berlin and Kay, and the
relativist view, part of the larger domain of linguistic relativity, in which colour
terms are culturally dependent. But for our purposes we’ll stick with those
basic colour terms given by Berlin and Kay: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown,
purple, pink, orange, and grey, though we won’t follow that order, or the spectrum
order found in the rainbow, but instead move along the routes mapped out by some unexpected
connections between them. And we’ll start with that word hue. It comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European
root *kei- that seems to have originally meant a kind of dark colour, and is the source of
a number of different colour words in various languages. It’s the source of Old English hæwen a
word meaning “blue”, which survives into Early Modern English as haw, a word which
is still used in Scots. It’s also the source of the Old English
word har which is the most common Old English word referring to the colour grey. That survives into Modern English as hoar,
that’s H-O-A-R, and it’s now most commonly used to refer to grey hair, as well as to
the colour of frost as in hoarfrost, and it’s that sense of grey hair that lies behind the
related German word Herr meaning “mister”, from the idea of showing respect to someone
who is old and grey haired. Old English did also have the word grey, which
is now the basic term for that colour. The etymology of grey is uncertain, and while
there are cognates in the various Germanic languages, the Romance language cognates like
Spanish gris, French gris, and Italian grigio, the last two of which wine lovers will know
from Pinot gris and Pinot grigio, are all borrowings from Germanic not native Romance
words. However, this Germanic root may go back to
the Proto-Indo-European root *gh(e)r- meaning “to shine, glow”, which is attested outside
of the Germanic languages. English cognates of grey include grizzled,
which again usually refers to grey hair or fur in the case of the grizzly bear, and the
word ambergris. Ambergris is a substance which was, until
the more recent development of synthetic substitutes, frequently used in the manufacture of perfumes
as a fixative making the scent last longer. It is produced, believe it or not, in the
digestive system of sperm whales, where it appears to form as a coating for hard, sharp
objects the whale ingests such as giant squid beaks, until it is vomited up by the whale. So yes, perfume is made from whale vomit! Now the gris part of the word is from French
gris, and the first part of the word is in fact amber, the yellow or orange fossilized
tree resin often used in jewellery. Except originally the word amber referred
to ambergris, coming from the Arabic word anbar which referred to the whale vomit substance,
not the fossilized tree resin, which only became associated with the word later. To sort out the confusion, the French began
to refer to the whale substance as ambre gris “grey amber” and the tree resin as ambre
jaune “yellow amber”, and eventually the tree resin continued to be called simply amber,
having usurped the word. To make matters more confusing, by way of
folk etymology, the word ambergris came to be interpreted as either amber-grease, because
of the greasy nature of the substance, or amber-greece in the belief that it came from
the country Greece. As for the fossilized tree resin, which typically
came from the area around the Baltic Sea, you might wonder how it was referred to before
it usurped the word amber. Well in Greek it called electron, which became
Latin and English electrum, a word which could also refer to an alloy of gold and silver
which had a colour similar to amber. The English words electron and electricity
came about because early experiments with electricity involved the rubbing of amber
to produce a static electric charge. The ultimate etymology of Greek electron is
uncertain, but one suggestion is that it might be related to the Greek word helios meaning
“sun” (and therefore also related to the English word helium, so called because the
element was first identified during an observation of a solar eclipse) again because of its appearance,
thus ultimately coming from Proto-Indo-European *sawel-, also the source of the English word
sun. Now both amber and ambergris had a variety
of other uses as well. In addition to perfume, ambergris, was also
used for medicinal purposes, such as burning it to ward off the Black Death in medieval
Europe, as well as a food or flavouring, as in the favourite dish of King Charles II of
England: eggs and ambergris, and an ingredient in a cocktail from the 19th century The English
and Australian Cookery Book. In addition to its use as a jewel (and a plot
device in Jurassic Park), amber could also be used for its colour, possibly as an ingredient
in the varnish of Stradivarius violins (the recipe was a secret and is a matter of some
scholarly debate), and was also used for its scent, being burned in ancient Chinese customs,
though generally not actually used in perfumes, but instead the scent of amber being simulated
through the use of other ingredients, such as the shrub resin called lubdanum, not to
be confused with laudanum though its name often appears as laudanum. Interestingly, actual laudanum, from the Latin
verb laudare “to praise”, a kind of cure-all medicine invented by the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus,
was made with both amber and ambergris, along with a number of other ingredients, such as
crushed pearls, musk, saffron, castor, and nutmeg, but the real active ingredient was
opium. In addition to its medical uses, laudanum
was also frequently taken as a recreational drug, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously
being interrupted by a “man from Porlock” during his opium-fuelled hallucinatory dream
which became the poem Kublai Khan. He had become addicted to laudanum after taking
it to treat his jaundice and rheumatic fever. And his medical condition, jaundice, brings
us to our next colour, yellow, since it comes from that French word for yellow, jaune, which
we saw in ambre jaune, and which goes back to the Latin colour word galbus “yellow,
greenish-yellow”, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *ghel- meaning “to shine”, a root with
many colour word derivatives in various languages, including the word yellow itself, through
the Germanic branch. Other English words from this root include
gold, a shiny metal, yolk, the yellow part of an egg, and words such as gleam, glitter,
glow, and glass, all through Germanic. The root also passed into the Indo-Iranian
branch of languages, becoming Old Iranian *zarna- “golden”, Middle Persian zarnika
“gold coloured”, and Syriac zarniqa meaning “arsenic”, which, after passing through
Greek, Latin, and Old French, ends up as the English word arsenic. Arsenic has historically not only been used
as a poison, but as a medicine as well, for diseases such as cancer and syphilis, and
is even still used in some rare circumstances. It was also used as a gold coloured pigment
and dye in its mineral form orpiment, a word which comes from Latin aurum “gold” and
pigmentum “pigment”, which was also used by alchemists trying to produce gold. In other forms, arsenic was used to make green
pigments and dyes, specifically Scheele’s Green, invented by chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele,
which may have played a role in Napoleon’s death because of the arsenic content in his
favourite green wallpaper and the damp conditions in his exile home on the island of St Helena
releasing the poison, and Paris Green, which was invented as an improvement over Scheele’s
Green, though it ended up being very toxic anyway, and came to be used as a component
of blue colourant in fireworks. The root *ghel- also made its way into Greek
as khloros meaning “pale green” or “greenish yellow” (remember, in Berlin and Kay’s
levels, green and yellow come together), which comes into English in a number of ways, such
as chlorophyll, the green substance in plants that allows for photosynthesis. It also produced the word melancholy, actually
a combination with the Greek colour word melas “black”, also source of the words melanin
and melanoma. You seen in Greek the bodily fluid bile was
called khole, also known in English as gall, also from that same root. In the ancient theory of the bodily humours,
yellow bile was thought to make you short tempered and irritated, whereas black bile
was thought to make you quiet or even morose, and became associated therefore with feelings
of depression, hence the word melancholy. Another way Greek khloros comes into English
is in the word chlorine, coined by chemist and inventor Sir Humphry Davy. However, Davy wasn’t the first to study
the substance. The Flemish chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont,
who accidentally coined the word gas from his Flemish pronunciation of the word chaos,
was the first to recognize chlorine as a gas, and our friend Carl Wilhelm Scheele was the
first to isolate chlorine, though he hadn’t yet worked out that it was an element not
a compound. Scheele, by the way, who was referred to as
“hard-luck Scheele” by Isaac Asimov because of all the discoveries he made before others
went public with them thus gaining all the credit, was also the first to isolate oxygen
(it was Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier who beat him to publication) and had invented
a bright yellow paint which came to be known as Turner’s Patent Yellow after the man
who stole the patent from under him. That’s why he was so quick to cash in on
Scheele’s Green, in spite of knowing about the whole arsenic poisoning problem. Of course today we primarily think of chlorine
as a disinfectant and a bleaching agent. In fact it was the first modern bleaching
agent. Bleaching by means of leaving textiles out
in the sun has of course been around a long time, and sometimes substances like lye and
sour milk were used to aid in the process. The word bleach itself goes back a long way
too, from Old English blæcan “to bleach, whiten”, ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European
root *bhel- “to shine, flash, burn”. But it was French chemist Claude Louis Berthollet
who first put chlorine to work as a bleaching agent, first as chlorine gas, and then as
a liquid bleach, Eau de Javel, named after the town he had his laboratory in (and think
also of the modern bleach brand name Javex). However, the process wasn’t very efficient,
and so an enterprising Scotsman (well aren’t they all) named Charles Tennant came up with
an improvement, producing bleaching powder and an industrial dynasty. Tennant enlisted several friends in his business
ventures, including one Charles Macintosh, who helped with the development of bleaching
powder. Macintosh’s other claim to fame was the
invention of a new type of waterproof fabric, what came to be known as the Mackintosh raincoat. He produced the fabric by using naphtha, a
byproduct of coal tar, to dissolve natural rubber and then sandwiched the solution between
two layers of fabric. The word naphtha is surprisingly old. It comes into English via Latin and Greek
from Old Persian nafta, which could mean “wet, moist” or “petroleum”, which in turn
comes either from Proto-Indo-European *nebh- “cloud” or Proto-Semitic *npt referring
to the petroleum substance. There might be a connection to the Indo-Iranian
water god Apam Napat, whose name means something like “child of the waters”, napat being
related to the English word nephew. In the Byzantine Empire, naphtha was used
as a component of Greek fire, basically a 7th century flamethrower, and in the 20th
century the Americans perfected this horrific weapon in the form of napalm, a portmanteau
from naphthenic and palmitic, since it was made from naphtha and palmitic acid, found
in palm oil. Napalm was invented by American chemist Louis
Fieser, whose less destructive contributions included the first synthesis of vitamin K,
and the synthesis and screening of quinones as antimalarial drugs, which are also used
in dyes and pigments and found in the madder plant and can be synthesized from coal tar. And he worked on steroids, synthesizing cortisone. So these drugs, along with some of the other
substances we’ve looked at so far, such as ambergris, laudanum, and arsenic are important
medical drugs, connected with the search for pigments and dyes. The word drug comes from Old French droge
“supply, stock, provision”, perhaps from Middle Dutch droge “dry” in reference
to the dry wares and dry barrels they were preserved in, which comes from the Germanic
root *dreug- “dry”, also source of the word dry. Now the ultimate source of this Germanic root
is uncertain. It might come from the Proto-Indo-European
root *dhreugh- “to shake, tremble”, or it might come from the root *dher- “to hold,
support”, and could thereby also be related to the Old English words darian “lie still
or hidden”, dyrnan “to hide, conceal”, and dyrne “hidden, secret”, so another
connection, along with the word colour, to the idea of something hidden or concealed. Now it may not surprise you to hear that another
word that descends from *bhel- “to shine, flash, burn” the root behind the word bleach,
is blond, as well as the French colour term blanc “white”. And so does the Latin word flavus meaning
“deep yellow, reddish yellow, gold-coloured, tawny”, which comes into English in chemical
terminology such as riboflavin, the chemical term for vitamin B2. But more surprising is that it is also the
root that lies behind the word black, from Old English blæc, which wasn’t the usual
basic term for the colour, which was sweart, related to the basic colour term for black
in other Germanic languages as well. Sweart and Modern English swarthy come from
the root *swordo- meaning “black, dirty”, also the root behind the word sordid. The sense development of *bhel- to black is
from “burning” (and thus “bright”) to “burnt” (like coal, and thus dark). And what’s more, another basic colour term
which comes from the root *bhel- is blue, which comes into English through Old French
bleu, replacing the native Old English word blæwen, also from the same root, though that’s
not a very common word in Old English, with hæwe or hæwen, related to Modern English
hue, being the more common term for the colour blue. So a lot of very different basic colour terms
from this same root that means “shiny”! Language is funny that way sometimes. Now as soon as you start to look into colour
words in old languages you’ll probably immediately run into claims that the ancient Greeks couldn’t
see blue because the colour is never mentioned in ancient Greek texts like the epics of Homer. In fact famously Homer talks about the “wine-dark
sea” which in Greek is oinops pontos literally more like “wine-face sea” or “wine-looking
sea”, and because we aren’t accustomed to thinking of the sea as the colour of wine,
some people, in the first instance British Prime Minister William Gladstone who wrote
a book about the subject, have jumped to the wrong conclusion. The reality of the situation is that, as we’ve
seen before, hue is only one parameter in which we categorize colours, so the comparison
of the sea to wine here is not on the basis of hue, but probably on the way light reflects
off both liquids as they move. Interestingly there is a kind of blue word
in Greek, kuanos from which we get English cyan and which might come from the Proto-Indo-European
root *kwei- “shining, white”, but for Homer the word seems to have just meant dark,
developing the sense of “blue” only later, being used to refer to the dark blue mineral
lapis lazuli. As for lapis lazuli, well the lapis part is
Latin for “stone” and the lazuli part comes through Arabic from Persian lajvard
which referred to the mineral as well as the town it came from (in modern day Turkestan). Where that name comes from is uncertain, but
one suggestion is that it’s a compound from that shiny root *ghel- which lies behind yellow
and gold and the root *wel- meaning “to press, push”. And this Persian word gives us another secondary
colour word in English, having had the article al added to it in Arabic and becoming Old
Spanish azur and eventually English azure. There are of course a number of other secondary
colour words for particular shades of blue in English, and many of them are connected
to pigments. Lapis lazuli was a much sought after pigment,
second in value only to gold, for blue paint, which was called ultramarine because it was
transported into Europe by ship from “beyond the sea”, from Latin ultra “beyond”
and marinus “of the sea”. Turquoise is so called because it was transported
into Europe through Turkey. Colour words are also often connected the
dyes that produce them. The word dye comes from Old English deag “colour,
dye”, but its further etymology is appropriately murky. It seems to come from the Proto-Germanic root
*daugo “colour, shade” and is related to Old English digol “hidden, secret”
much like the root *kel- “to cover, conceal” that lies behind the word colour. Beyond that, it might come from the Proto-Indo-European
root *dheu- “dust, vapour, smoke”. So along with colour and drug, dye also seems
to be connected with the idea of something hidden or secret. Now perhaps the most important ancient blue
dye was woad, from Old English wad, which is extracted from the Isatis tinctoria or
woad plant. Purportedly, at least according to Julius
Caesar when he invaded Britain, the Celtic people there either painted or dyed their
skin with woad when they went into battle. If this is true, there may in fact have been
another reason for using woad, since it is an astringent. Woad was also the primary dye for making blue
textiles, at least until indigo dye became available. Indigo, as the name suggests, was imported
from India, and produced from the Indigofera tinctoria plant, and is responsible for the
blue in blue jeans. The word jeans, by the way, comes from Jean,
an old 16th century word that comes from the city name Genoa, and came to refer to a rugged
type of cloth that came from there, whereas the word denim is derived from the French
de Nîmes meaning “from Nîmes”, a town in southern France, but another word for blue
jeans, dungarees, comes from the name of a village in India, Dungri, where a fabric dyed
with indigo was produced. Indigo had been available to the ancient Greeks
and Romans, but it was very rare in medieval Europe, so they had to settle for woad dye
instead, until Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India in the
15th century. Now indigo dye actually contains the same
chemical as woad but in a much higher concentration. And that got all the woad producers upset,
because indigo threatened their woad profits, so they started a smear campaign, claiming
that indigo was poisonous (it isn’t), rotted yarn (it doesn’t), and was the Devil’s
dye. But in the end there was no holding back the
new indigo since people really liked their bluer than blue blues. And one person who made a mint by cornering
the market on indigo dye in the 19th century was German businessman Heinrich Schliemann,
but funnily enough this is not the reason he became famous. Schliemann, who had grown up in poverty, and
was therefore unable to pursue his interests in ancient history by going to university,
instead made a number of quick fortunes through his sometimes underhanded business dealings,
first as a banker during the California gold rush buying and selling gold dust and seemingly
short changing his customers before hurriedly selling his bank and leaving town, and later
on as a military contractor during the Crimean war by cornering the marked on saltpetre,
sulphur, and lead used to make gunpowder and selling them to Russia. As a result of all this, he was able to retire
at age 36, and then dedicate himself to archaeological excavations of the locations in the Homeric
epics, including most famously discovering the location of Troy. Though he obtained a PhD in absentia by submitting
a dissertation (which was mostly copied from someone else’s work), he was never properly
trained, so his excavations were actually largely destructive. He in fact dug through and damaged the layer
of Troy that was later found to coincide with the period of the Trojan war, and looted some
golden items from an earlier layer which he called Priam’s Treasure. So indigo helped to “uncover” Troy, even
if Schliemann did as much harm as good. But another way that indigo is important to
our story is not the dye but the colour itself, because Isaac Newton, who did ground breaking
work on light and colour added it to the rainbow. What Newton had discovered is that white light
was actually made up of the whole spectrum of colours, by using a prism, which refracted
the different colours from a beam of white light at different angles, showing all those
component colours, and then recombined them back into white light. Newton decided that there should be seven
colours because there were seven notes in the western major scale, so he designated
a colour between blue and purple as indigo, as the East India Company had at the time
just begun importing indigo dye into England, even though he acknowledged that the rainbow
was an unbroken spectrum of colours. One of the reasons Newton was so keen on the
numerological correspondence of the seven colours and the seven musical notes might
have been the fact that seven was thought of as an important mystical number, and Newton
was obsessed with the occult. It sounds strange now to think of Newton as
being into the occult, but it seems that this work was even more important to him than his
scientific and mathematical work. The word occult, by the way, comes from the
root *kel- “to cover, conceal”, the same root that lies behind the word colour, since
it’s “hidden” knowledge. The particular types of hidden knowledge that
Newton was interested in were alchemy and the search for the philosopher’s stone,
decoding of the Bible to extract scientific information and also to make prophecies, and
theories of Atlantis, which he connected with the island Ogygia where Calypso kept Odysseus. In these regards, Newton was influenced by
the Rosicrucians, a movement that stemmed from Hermeticism, one of the most important
and influential occult traditions in Europe, which goes back to a set of Egyptian-Greek
wisdom texts, called the Hermetica, written in the second century CE and ascribed to Hermes
Trismegistus, meaning literally “thrice-great Hermes”. This figure was associated with both the Greek
god Hermes and the Egyptian god of wisdom Thoth, who became seen as the same god in
Ptolemaic Egypt. The other Egyptian god frequently mentioned
in the Hermetic corpus is Amun, who came to be the chief god in the Egyptian pantheon,
and whose name means, appropriately enough for our story, “hidden”. Amun is sometimes depicted with rams horns
and so fossilized cephalopods and snails came to be referred to as “horns of Ammon”,
which is reflected in the name ammonite, a prehistoric cephalopod. Another scientific name that was coined from
Ammon is ammonia, because it was first obtained from the salt deposits, called sal ammoniac,
found near a temple of Ammon in Libya, which was used not only for ritual but also for
medical purposes. As for ammonia itself, it was used for a wide
variety of purposes historically, including in certain dyeing processes in the form of
stale urine, and was first isolated by a number of chemists in the 18th century, including
our friend hard-luck Scheele, but its composition was first determined by bleacher Berthollet. Today ammonia is important in a wide variety
of applications, from fertilizers to window cleaners, but also, like chlorine has disinfectant
properties, and is used to reduce or eliminate microbial contamination of beef. The term hermetic seal, by the way, comes
from Hermeticism because Hermes Trismegistus supposedly discovered how to create an airtight
seal for alchemical purposes. Another English polymath and early scientist
who worked in the Hermeticist tradition was Thomas Browne, who wrote about the relationship
between religion and science in his Religio Medici “Religion of a Doctor”, in which
he also wrote about melancholia, and who coined a great number of scientific terms, such as
hallucination, which is formed from Latin alucinari “to wander in mind, talk unreasonably,
ramble in thought”, ultimately from Greek aluein “to wander in mind”—think of
Coleridge hallucinating about Kublai Khan. When Browne died his extensive library, which
contained not only medical texts but also many occult books, was left to his eldest
son Edward, but when he died their combined collection went up for auction, and many books
were purchased by physician, naturalist, and noted collector Hans Sloane, and when he died
he left his phenomenal collection to the British nation, which became the foundation of the
British Museum, the British Library, and the Natural History Museum in London. Sloane’s other claim to fame was the invention
of chocolate milk when he combined the cacao he was introduced to in Jamaica, which he
initially thought was nauseating, with milk to make it more palatable. Hot chocolate sweetened and spiced with a
variety of other ingredients had already been introduced to Europe, including one recipe
that contained fresh jasmine flowers, amber, musk, vanilla and… ambergris. Try adding some grey whale vomit to *your*
hot chocolate today! Now in addition to *ghel- and *bhel-, there
are a surprising number of other Proto-Indo-European roots that mean “to shine”. I guess if something is shiny, you really
want to talk about it! And many of these roots produce colour words
in one language or another. For instance, there’s *arg- which leads
to a Greek word for white, but also the Latin word for “silver”, argentum, and therefore
Argentina, where all the silver comes from. And there’s *leuk- which becomes Greek leukos
“clear, white”, giving us leukemia, a disease affecting white blood cells. The root *kand-, passing through Latin, gives
us not only candle and incandescent, but also candidate, because a Roman running for political
office would wear an extra white toga, from Latin candidatus “clothed in white”, and
may also be partly behind the name Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam who prophesied
the fall of Troy, though she was cursed to no one believe her prophecies. And there are a bunch more shiny roots, two
of which we’ll see later. As for the word white, well it comes from
another shiny root, *kweit-. The other main English word that comes from
this root is wheat, with its white flour. Wheat was of course was the transformative
crop that allowed for the agricultural revolution and the formation of complex societies and
large cities in places like Mesopotamia and Egypt. Wheat’s importance can hardly be stressed
enough, and people became so dependant on this crop that when something went wrong with
it many would starve and civilizations could fall. And one of the big threats is wheat leaf rust,
a fungal disease that affects not only wheat, but other grains such as barley and rye. The Romans had an agricultural festival called
Robigalia which was mean to propitiate Robigus, the god of rust diseases, and the festival
would involve the sacrifice of a puppy, often one with a red coat. It was sympathetic magic: the red blood from
the red puppy to ward off the rust coloured plant disease. You see plant rusts get their name because
they appear as rust-coloured spores on plant surfaces. And the word rust, in both its senses, and
Robigalia for that matter, are etymologically related to the word red. Red and rust come from the Proto-Indo-European
root *reudh- “red, ruddy”, both through the Germanic branch. Through Latin rubeus “red” we also get
ruby and rouge, from the French word for “red” but now used in English to refer to the makeup. Robust, rambunctious, and corroborate also
come from this root through Latin robur “red oak” because of the hardness and strength
of the tree. And the word rubric comes from this root because
of the red lettering in medieval manuscripts used to mark divisions or special sections
— that’s where we get the expression “red letter day”. The red ink was made from minium, also known
as red lead or lead oxide. The word minium comes from the river Minius,
now called Minho at the Spanish-Portuguese border, and may ultimately come from the Proto-Indo-European
root *mei- “to change, go, move”, also the source of words such as mad, mutate, mistake,
communism, amoeba, and migrate. Minium gives us our English word miniature,
which originally had nothing to do with smallness and is unrelated to words like minute and
minimum, through Italian minatura since sections in manuscripts were also divided off with
ornate illustrated capitals. The other source of red ink was the mineral
cinnabar or mercury sulphide, which was really popular with Roman women who used it as lipstick,
in spite of the fact that it contained poisonous mercury. Cinnabar was also sometimes referred to as
vermilion in its prepared form, but true vermilion also known as crimson, is a dye that comes
from the insect Kermes vermilio. The word vermilion, from Latin vermis “worm”
is related to the word worm (from the Germanic branch) and comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European
root *wrmi- meaning “worm”, which has the rhyming variant *kwrmi- also meaning “worm”,
which passed into Sanskrit and was then borrowed into Arabic from which we get the word crimson. Cloth dyed with kermes was called scarlet,
a very expensive woollen fabric in medieval Europe. The word scarlet comes into English through
the Romance languages from Arabic siqillat, which referred to an expensive red silk cloth. The etymology beyond that is uncertain, but
it may actually come from Latin sigillatus “embossed in figures” from sigillum “seal”
from signum “mark, token, sign”, also the source of the word sign. In turn, signum might come from the Proto-Indo-European
root *sekw- “to follow” from the idea of a sign or standard one follows, or from
*sek- “to cut” from the idea of a sign or mark that is carved. This would be appropriate for scarlet cloth
dyed with the insect-based kermes, since the word insect comes from this root because an
insect’s body is “cut” into three segments. And speaking of insects and threats to the
wheat supply, locusts, related to the word lobster, were the other great danger in addition
to the fungal rust, with many ancient references to plagues of locusts in ancient Egypt, the
book of Genesis, Homer’s Iliad, Aristotle, Livy, and the Quran. Locusts are in fact just a particular species
of grasshopper, though it’s interesting to note that while grasses, that is the family
Poaceae of which wheat is a member, evolved in the early Cretaceous period, grasshoppers
evolved some hundred million years earlier in the early Triassic. The family name Poaceae was coined from Greek
poa “fodder” which comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *??peiə- “to be fat, swell”, also
the source of fat, pine, Irish, and Pinot, as in Pinot grigio or Pinot gris, which we
saw earlier. As for grasshopper and grass, well that word
comes from the root *ghre- “to grow, become green”, also source of the words grow, graze,
possibly herb, and the basic colour term green. Some other colour words in the range of green
include the green gem emerald, from, for once, a Semitic verb meaning “to shine” to add
to our shiny roots, baraq which was the basis of the noun baraqt meaning “gem”. This made it into the vernacular languages
of India, an important source of gems in the ancient world, as maragada, and then into
Greek as maragdos “green gem” and the variant form smaragdos, which passed into
Latin smaragdus becoming post-classical Latin smaralda, and after becoming Spanish esmeralda
and Old French esmeraude, became English emerald, and the phrase “emerald isle” in reference
to Ireland first appeared in 1795. Another precious, or rather semiprecious green
stone is malachite, which gets its green colour from its copper content. Malachite gets its name from the green leaves
of the mallow plant, malache in Greek. You see when copper is exposed to air or seawater,
it gains a green patina called verdigris, also used as a pigment, which is why the statue
of liberty is green. The word verdigris comes from Old French vert-de-grice,
which unlike ambergris, actually does mean “green of Greece” though the word has
been misinterpreted as meaning “green of grey”, but what the connection with Greece
is is uncertain. French vert “green”, related to English
verdant and verdure, comes form Latin viridis “green”, whose further etymology is unknown. Another fungal blight on grasses and in particular
rye is ergot. The problem is, if you eat something made
from ergot contaminated rye, you can contract ergotism, which causes convulsions, diarrhea
and vomiting, gangrene, which is tissue death, and if you’re wondering the word gangrene
has no etymological connection to the word green, as well as mental effects such as mania
and psychosis. There have been numerous historical accounts
of outbreaks of ergotism, and some researchers have posited connections between these outbreaks
and events like the Salem witch trials, which had reports of bewitchment symptoms very similar
to ergotism, such as convulsions, melancholia, and hallucinations. You see ergot, like many fungi, contains alkaloids
which can have powerful effects when ingested, sometimes fatal ones. Alkaloids can be poisonous or psychoactive
causing hallucinogens, but can also be useful drugs to treat things such as migraines, malaria,
and cancer, induce childbirth, and prevent post-partum hemorrhaging. Psychoactive alkaloids are not only used as
illicit hallucinogenic drugs, but are also found in every day food and drinks, such as
caffeinated beverages and chocolate. Getting back to ergot specifically, some researchers
have speculated that kykeon, an ancient Greek drink made from barley, when used as part
of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an initiation rite for the cult of Demeter and Persephone,
may have contained ergot contaminated barley, thus accounting for the mystical experiences
of the rite. Similarly, some researchers have suggested
that the witch Circe’s magical potion in the Odyssey might have been an ergot-contaminated
kykeon, and that the magical herb which Hermes gives Odysseus to protect him from her enchantments
could have been an actual plant such as the snowdrop that can prevent hallucinations. Also, author John Grigsby argues, based on
evidence from bog bodies of northern Europe, that there were fertility cults that used
ergot in ways similar to the Eleusinian Mysteries, and that the poem Beowulf reflects the tension
between such a fertility cult and the followers of Odin, idiosyncratically interpreting the
name Beowulf as “barley-wolf” rather than the standard interpretation as “bee-wolf”,
a kenning meaning “bear”. Grigsby’s highly controversial fertility
cult theory may be reflected in the sexualized interpretation of Grendel’s mother, played
by Angelina Jolie, in the 2007 film adaptation of Beowulf. Now another effect of ergot is that it can
trigger a group of genetic diseases called porphyria, as can mercury and arsenic poisoning,
with such symptoms as, depending on the type of porphyria, abdominal pain, vomiting, high
blood pressure, rapid heart rate, and neurological conditions such as muscle weakness, seizures,
anxiety, and hallucinations and occasionally overt psychosis, as well as in another form
of the disease light sensitivity in the skin causing pain and even blisters. There are a number of famous historical figures
who seem to have suffered from porphyria, such as Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Mary
Queen of Scots, King George III of Great Britain, and Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh, who had intermittent psychotic episodes
and hallucinations, is the romantic ideal of the tortured artist, who is known for his
use of vibrant colours and swirling brush strokes, and also experimented with pointillism
in some of his paintings. Pointillism is the use of small coloured dots
to build up an image. The words pointillism and point come from
Latin punctum meaning “a prick, puncture”, ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root
*peuk- “to prick”, which is also the source of the word Pygmy, who in Greek mythology
were a tribe of diminutive people mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. It’s also the source of the verb to pink,
now mainly used in the phrase pinking shears, which leave a zigzag pattern rather than a
straight edge, and this may be the source of the colour term pink, since the Dianthus
flowers, which have perforated petals and are pink in colour was also called pinks,
though there is the alternate suggestion that it comes from a Dutch word meaning small,
also the source of the expression pinkie finger, which was used in the phrase pink eyes meaning
“small or half closed eyes” to refer to the flowers. In either case, pink was the last basic colour
term to be added to the English language, not appearing in this specifically colour
sense until the 18th century. As an interesting and interconnecting side
note, the expression pink elephant, first recorded in 1913 in Jack London’s autobiographical
novel about his alcoholism John Barleycorn, refers to alcohol induced hallucinations. There are of course other colour words which
can refer to pink by way of comparison to pink things (so not basic colour terms), such
as rose from Latin rosa and Greek rhodon (also the source of the flower name rhododendron),
ultimately probably an eastern Mediterranean borrowing, and carnation meaning literally
“flesh coloured” from Latin caro “flesh”, which also came to refer to a pink flower. But getting back to porphyria, it’s more
directly connected to the basic colour term purple. Porphyria gets its name because of one of
the symptoms of the disease, the change in colour of one’s urine to purple, since porphyra
is the Greek word for a purple dye that came from Tyre made from a type of sea snail of
the Murex genus. We don’t know where this Greek word comes
from, so it’s probably a loanword possibly from a Semitic source, but the word passed
from Greek to Latin as purpura, from which it became Old English purpul through a process
of dissimilation in which one of the /r/ sounds was changed to the different /l/ sound. Tyrian purple was highly valued in the ancient
world, becoming associated with royalty, but during the middle ages it became unavailable
due to the near extinction of the snail and the sack of Constantinople in 1204, so medieval
dyers turned to various red dyes such as kermes, which could be used along with indigo to produce
a sort of purple. Another common word for the colour purple
is violet, which comes from the name of the flower violet. Technically speaking violet is actually the
colour on the spectrum of visible light having a specific wavelength, as purple is the blending
of red and blue wavelengths. The word violet comes into English through
Old French violette from Latin viola which also refers to the flower. Though we don’t know where this Latin word
comes from, it seems to be etymologically related to the Greek word ion which refers
to the same flower. This Greek word makes its way into English
in the word iodine, coined in English by Sir Humphry Davy from Louis Gay-Lussac’s French
word for the element iode. Actually there’s a bit of disagreement as
to who gets the credit for this one. Iodine was first discovered by French chemist
Bernard Courtois, who was a producer of saltpetre, a component of gunpowder. Courtois accidentally produced iodine in the
process of making saltpetre, and figured he’d discovered a new element, but unfortunately
lacked the funds to continue investigating it. So he gave out samples to a number of other
chemists to work on, including Gay-Lussac, who figured it was either a new element or
an oxygen compound, came up with the name and publicly announced the discovery. Meanwhile Davy had gotten his hands on some
iodine, experimented on it and noted its similarity to chlorine, and announced to the Royal Society
of London that he’d identified a new element. Thus broke out an argument between Gay-Lussac
and Davy over who was the first to identify the new element, but both men gave credit
to Courtois for being the first to isolate it. It was the surgeon Antonio Grossich who first
proposed using a tincture of iodine for sterilizing skin before an operation, since iodine, like
chlorine and ammonia, is a disinfectant. Courtois’s other claim to fame is that he
had earlier isolated morphine, the alkaloid in opium from the opium poppy. In fact this was the very first alkaloid to
be isolated. Courtois had actually collaborated with Armand
Séguin in the discovery of morphine, but after Séguin presented their findings to
the French Institute in 1804, initially without giving credit to Courtois, the pair stopped
working on their opium research, and Courtois went back to making saltpetre. Morphine was then rediscovered by German pharmacist
Friedrich Sertürner, who gave it its name based on the Greek god of sleep, Morpheus,
and he is now credited with pioneering the field of alkaloid chemistry. Sertürner marketed morphine both as a pain
suppressant and as a treatment for opium and alcohol addiction, though it later became
clear that morphine is far more addictive than either opium or alcohol. As for Séguin, he went on to discover a faster
and cheaper method of tanning leather, and subsequently made a mint providing leather
for Napoleon’s armies (before, of course, he died from green wallpaper poisoning), whereas
poor Courtois, in spite of starting a business manufacturing iodine and inventing iodine
scarlet dye, ended up dying penniless. I guess he and hard luck Scheele could console
each other in the afterlife at least. Now once again there are other words that
are sometimes used to refer to particular shades of the colour purple because they also
refer to purple things, such as amethyst, a purple coloured quartz. The ancient Greeks believed that amethyst
could prevent drunkenness, perhaps through sympathetic magic as the colour was similar
to that of wine, so they wore rings of amethyst, and that’s how the stone got its name, which
in Greek is made up of the negative prefix a- and the word methu which means “wine”,
coming from the Proto-Indo-European root *medhu- “mead” which also leads to the Germanic
derived word mead, an alcoholic beverage made from honey. This root also leads to the word methanol
with the second element coming from Greek hule “wood”, which is the simplest alcohol,
what is sometimes referred to as wood alcohol. The alcohol we drink is called ethanol, a
contraction of ether alcohol. Of course alcohol is another example of a
psychoactive drug (remember those pink elephants), but unfortunately amethyst isn’t really
effective at preventing drunkenness — you’d be better off with some holy moly! Now adding alcohol can help the medicine go
down, so to speak, as in the case of the antimalarial drug quinine, which is by the way another
example of an alkaloid, coming from the bark of the cinchona tree, which was mixed with
gin and carbonated water to give us the gin and tonic. So during the period of British colonialism,
British officials were safe from malaria if a little tipsy from the alcohol. Well some things never change. But quinine was hard to get since it wasn’t
easy transporting and domesticating the cinchona tree, so attempts were made to produce it
artificially (as we saw napalm inventor Louis Fieser later did). One such 19th century chemist who was trying
to do this was William Henry Perkin, who was trying to extract it from coal tar, that stuff
that Macintosh got his raincoat material from. Well he failed to produce quinine but he accidentally
succeeded in producing the world’s first artificial aniline dye. He named his new purple dye mauveine, after
the colour word mauve, which was the French word for the mallow plant — remember the
green malachite — so malachite is reminiscent of the green leaves of the mallow plant and
mauve is reminiscent of the purple flowers, and all the words, mallow from Old English
malwe, malachite from Greek malakhe, and mauve from Latin malva, come from the same source
word, from an unknown and now lost Mediterranean language. But getting back again to the purple porphyria,
you remember I said one of the symptoms was light sensitivity even to the point of skin
blistering? Well one theory is that porphyria may be the
source of the vampire legend. Additionally one treatment for porphyria involves
blood transfusions, which might be connected to the blood drinking element of vampire myths
— Vlad the Impaler also known as Vlad Dracula was another possible historical case of porphyria
and he was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s famous novel — though some have criticized
this theory as both medically implausible and based more on the fictional vampire than
the folkloric one. Porphyria has also been linked to werewolf
legends, since the disorder can also cause hypertrichosis, that is abnormal hair growth
even including the whole face. Perhaps a more plausible explanation for werewolves
are the Viking berserkers, or rather the similar úlfhéðnar. You see the word berserk literally means “bear
shirt”, as berserkers would don bear skins just as the úlfhéðnar would don wolf skins. In both cases, these warriors would channel
the spirit of these animals for fighting and would enter into a trance-like fury in battle
called berserkergang, in which they would gnaw on their shields, fly into a rage, and
seem to posses inhuman strength. One explanation for this berserkergang is
the ingestion of Amanita muscaria, otherwise known as fly agaric, in other words magic
mushrooms, or perhaps the plant henbane, which both contain powerful alkaloids with psychoactive
properties including hallucinations. The word wolf comes through the Germanic branch
from the Proto-Indo-European root *wlkwo- meaning “wolf”, which is also the source
of Greek lukos “wolf”, from which we get lycanthrope, literally “wolf man”, and
Latin lupus, from which comes the French word for “wolf” loup, as well as the name of
the autoimmune disease lupus, so named in the 13th century because the rash it produced
was thought to resemble a wolf’s bite. As for the word bear, it comes through the
Germanic branch from the root *bher- meaning “bright, brown”, which is not only another
one for our list of shiny roots, also giving us the word burnish, but is also the source
of the basic colour term brown. So bear literally means “the brown animal”,
as does the word beaver, also from this root. The funny thing is, *bher- is not the normal
Indo-European word for bear, which was instead *rtko-. This root comes into Latin as ursus, as in
Ursa Minor, the “little bear”, and into Greek as arktos “bear”, from which we
get the term arctic because the constellation Ursa Minor contains Polaris, the north star. So why did the Germanic languages end up with
a different word for “bear” based on the colour word brown? Well this is a case of taboo replacement:
rather than use the name of a powerful creature, which might evoke its presence, an alternate
name is used. Remember the Vikings, as well as the other
Germanic peoples, venerated the bear. This can also be seen in that kenning name
Beowulf, literally “bee wolf” meaning “bear” because the bear eats the bees’
honey. So Beowulf is a replacement of the replacement
of the original word for “bear”. Talk about hidden! Now there are of course various brown pigments,
including sepia, a brown ink made from the ink sac of a cuttlefish, called sepia in Greek
from the verb sepein “to make rotten”, also the source of the words septic and antiseptic,
reminding us of all the disinfectants we’ve seen so far. Russet as a colour term referring to a reddish
brown colour comes from the rough woollen cloth russet, worn in the middle ages by peasants,
which was even required in England by a law passed in 1363, and by Franciscan friars to
show their humility, which was dyed with blue woad and the reddish dye madder to produce
that dull brown colour, with the word russet coming ultimately from the root *reudh- that
lies behind the word red. And perhaps the most unusual brown pigment
is the paint mummy brown, actually made from ground up Egyptian mummies! The word mummy comes from Arabic mumiya “embalmed
body” from the Persian word mum “wax”, which was used in the embalming process. But if you think paint is an odd use for Egyptian
mummies, you’ll be floored to know that it was also used as an ingredient in medicines,
such as the medieval version of theriac, a kind of cure all like laudanum. In fact Paracelsus himself worked with theriac. The word theriac comes from Greek therion
“wild animal” as it was a cure for venomous bites, and would contain the flesh of venomous
animals, as well as other ingredients such as garlic, roses, ginger, saffron, and a variety
of other herbs and spices, though the main active ingredient was once again opium. Theriac has its origins in the cure all Mithridate,
supposedly invented by Mithridates VI the king of Pontus. Because of the assassination of his father
Mithridates V, he developed this complex recipe of opium, myrrh, saffron, ginger, cinnamon
and castor, and forty other ingredients as an antidote against all poisons. He also took to exposing himself to sublethal
doses of many poisons in order to build up an immunity. Inconceivable! The story goes that after he was defeated
and put to flight by the Roman general Pompey, he tried to commit suicide by poison, which
didn’t work because of his immunity to all poisons, and so he had to have his Gallic
bodyguard and friend Bituitus kill him by sword. Mithridates was a formidable enemy of Rome,
and had earlier encountered the general Sulla in the first Mithridatic war, but Sulla eventually
had to come to terms with Mithridates so that he could return to Rome to keep his political
rival Marius from getting the upper hand. Marius had been Sulla’s commander in the
Cimbrian War between Rome and various Celtic and Germanic tribes, most significantly the
Cimbri and Teutones. Marius gained a boost to his political career
when he took charge of the Cimbrian war, reorganizing the legions, in the wake of the disastrous
Battle of Arausio, in which the two generals proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio and consul
Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, who didn’t get along, failed to cooperate leading two separate armies. You see Maximus was the consul for the year,
so he should have outranked Caepio, but since Maximus didn’t come from a noble family,
Caepio refused to serve under him. This battle was fought near the Celtic town
Arausio, which took its name from the Celtic god Arausio, a water deity like the Indo-Iranian
Apam Napat (connected to Naphtha) and the Greek Calypso (from Homer’s Odyssey). Over time, the Celtic name Arausio morphed
into the French name Orange, as its now known, seat of the House of Orange. But the placename Orange is not the source
of the colour word orange, though it did affect its form. The colour term has its origin in India in
the Dravidian word naru meaning “fragrant”. This was borrowed into Sanskrit as the word
naranga meaning “orange tree”, and it eventually made its way into Persian as narang,
then Arabic naranj, and because of the period of Arabic controlled Spain it became Spanish
naranj. Now in French, because of the similarity to
the placename Orange, une narange, essentially “a norange”, became rebracketed as une
orange “an orange”. The word arrived in English in the 14th century
in reference to the fruit, but eventually became a colour term in the 16th century since
there wasn’t really any word for that colour except for workarounds like Old English geolu-read,
literally “yellow-red”. But as a final note, oranges are rich in vitamin
C, and because of this vitamin’s connection to the immune system, it has, at least in
the popular imagination, become the modern day cure all for infections such as the common
cold. So from drugs to dyes, diseases, disinfectants,
epics, hallucinations, and serendipitous discoveries, by looking beneath the surface of our basic
colours we’ve uncovered some of the hidden connections at the end of the rainbow. Thanks for watching! If you can believe it, there’s still so
much more to learn about colours—so go check out the playlist from our WCE friends to find
out about colours in animals, toxic dyes, and more! If you’ve enjoyed these etymological explorations
and cultural connections, please subscribe, & click the little bell to be notified of
every new episode. And check out our Patreon, where you can make
a contribution to help me make more videos. I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, and you can
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and more!

7 thoughts on “Rainbow Connections: The Language of Colour”

  1. Could "drug" be related to the Norse "draugr" or "draug"? (aka: the zombies from Skyrim) I can definitely see a thematic and phonetic connection there.

  2. What a ride, thank you!

    One connection that I felt is missing: Alchemy comes from (or is influenced by) the old name of Egypt – Khemia, which means "black" land.

  3. I'm only eight minutes in so far, but the part on "amber" and "electron" reminds me of a bit of etymological trivia I picked up on Wikipedia: Icelandic is quite conservative with regard to loanwords, so when it comes to naming new concepts they sometimes resort to calques. Since "electron" and "electricity" derive from the Greek for amber, they turned to the Icelandic word for amber, "raf", giving them "rafeind" ("amber-particle") for electron, and "rafmagn" ("amber-power") for electricity.

    It's such a neat piece of trivia (to me) I wouldn't be surprised if it's been included in a previous video and I've just forgotten. Anyway, on with the rest of the video…

    EDIT: The origin of the word "gas" is fantastic!

  4. Wait, how does Mei relate to Communism? I figured the root of that ideology would be ‘Commune’ and then ism for belief.

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