The weird word origins of your favorite colors
Primary colors like red and blue have ancient names with fairly straightforward histories. But the names of some of the shades in between have origins that are stranger than you’ve imagined.
Colors to Dye For
The reason the color purple is traditionally associated with royalty can be found in its etymology. So, does its name mean something regal? Not exactly. “Purple” comes from the Latin word purpura, a type of mollusk known for its use in producing a prized purple dye that was sought after for royal garments due to its richness.
Purple and crimson seem to have been closely related throughout history, as the Middle English word purpel was used to describe a dark crimson. Crimson dye doesn't come from mollusks, though—it comes from dried bugs. The word “crimson” has its roots in the Arabic word qirmizī, which comes from “kermes,” a red dyestuff produced by dried scale insects of the genus Kermes. The word “kermes,” in turn, comes from the Sanskrit word krmija, which means “produced by a worm.” Probably best to keep that to yourself next time you see someone wearing an elegant crimson gown.
Magenta and Fuchsia
The terms “fuchsia” and “magenta” are often used interchangeably to describe bright blends of purple and pink, but their etymologies are very different. “Fuchsia,” which is also the name of a genus of plants known for their purplish flowers, ultimately traces back to 16th-century German botanist Leonhard Fuchs. Magenta, though, gets its name from the Italian town of Magenta, after a bloody victory that French and Sardinian forces won there in 1859—the same year that fuchsin (the dye that produces these colors) was patented.
This dark blue shade owes its name to the country where its dye was produced in ancient times: India. The word “indigo” ultimately has roots in the Greek word Indikos, meaning “of India.” The word “indigo” is also related to the Old Persian word Hinduš, which was once used to refer to the Indus River.
Colors with Shades of Meaning
Despite referring to a light purple rather than a dark blue, “lilac” also comes from a term meaning “indigo.” It derives from the Arabic word līlak, which comes from the Middle Persian word nīlak, which in turn comes from nīl, meaning “indigo.” Nīl is related to nīla-, “dark blue” in Sanskrit, which suggests that indigo has long been the rich, deep blue we know today. Lilac does have blue in it, but not to the extent that its etymology suggests.
If you want a true blue, go with azure, which is usually used to describe a light shade of blue similar to that of a clear sky. But for its etymology, look to the ground, not the sky. “Azure” ultimately comes from the Persian word lāzhuward, referring to the blue gemstone lapis lazuli—whose name comes from the same word.
But perhaps the true sky blue is cerulean, whose name comes from the Latin word caeruleus, which is related to caelum, Latin for “sky.”
Colors Cut from the Same Cloth
Fabrics are woven into the etymology of the word “beige.” The Old French word bege is possibly a shortened form of the Old Italian word bambagia, meaning “cotton wool.” Bambagia has its roots in the Medieval Latin word bombax, meaning “cotton.” It is also related to “bombazine,” a twilled fabric that was once commonly dyed black for mourning attire.
Beige would be way less beige if it were called bombazine, no?
Scarlet also gets its name from the world of fabrics. The word “scarlet” has its roots in the Old French word escarlate (“fine cloth”), the Medieval Latin word scarlata (“scarlet cloth”), and the Persian word saqirlāt (“rich cloth”), which is a variant of the Arabic siqillāt. This Arabic word is thought to be related to the Medieval Greek word sigillatos, referring to “sigils,” small symbols sometimes believed to have magical powers.
If you want to cast a magic spell, you might consider including the word “periwinkle,” which is thought to have originated as part of a magical verbal incantation. The word comes from Middle English via a Latin term that might have been influenced by the Latin word pervincere, meaning “to conquer completely.”
“Cobalt” can refer to a silvery metal and also to the greenish-blue color that cobalt oxide and alumina produce. The metal cobalt got its name from the Middle High German word kobolt, a variant of kobold, meaning “goblin.” That’s because goblins were believed to haunt underground places, so silver miners deemed them responsible when they found cobalt, and not silver, in the silver mines.
Where did your favorite color get its name?
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