The Color Of Language: English Color Etymologies

The Color Of Language: English Color Etymologies


This is the first post in a series on English Color Etymologies. Today we are looking at the colors that come from the names of animals, insects, and flowers, trees and plants.

English is a colorful language. Since its birth among the tribes of Europe, English has built its color vocabulary with the wealth of words it has inherited from Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, Latin, and Greek. Collected here are 172 colors that standard dictionaries (I used the American Heritage and the Random House) classify as specific color nouns (these do not, of course, include the standard ten – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, black, grey, white – or any Crayola inventions). This treasure of colors is broken down by etymological origin: is the color the name of a flower, an animal, or even a historical person? Some colors appear twice (when I felt two origins were sufficiently different). Others appear only once though they could certainly fit into several categories.

Ever wonder how a color got its name? Refer to the following and enjoy your new grasp on color!

ANIMALS


Photo by fortphoto

The plumage, pelts, tusks, shells, and scales of various animals have all lent their names to colors.

Ivory
Elephant tusk (made of the same material as all mammalian teeth).
eggshell
Covering of a bird’s or reptile’s egg, made of calcium.
buff
Soft leather, particularly from buffalo, elk, or
oxen.
salmon
A game fish.
Flamingo
A large wading bird.
coral
Rocklike structure formed of the calcareous skeletons of various, small sea creatures.
Canary
A small finch native to the Canary Islands (“the island of dogs”).
Teal
A small freshwater duck.
fawn
A young deer.
chamois
A European goat antelope.
Taupe
A French mole (word now obsolete for reference to the animal).
Sable
A small, forest-dwelling, carnivorous mammal, related to the martens.
sepia
Italian word for the cuttlefish (and the ink it secretes).

INSECTS


Photo by markop

Various insects have been used for dyeing fabric over time and have thus become their own color.

vermeil
From Latin verminculus, ‘a little worm,’
specifically the cochineal insects from which
the red dye was obtained.
cochineal
A red dye made from the pulverized body of the cochineal insect, Dactylopius coccus.
Vermilion
From Latin verminculus, ‘a little worm,’
specifically the cochineal insects from which
the red dye was obtained.
Carmine
From Sanskrit krimiga, ‘insect-produced’.
crimson
From the Arabic qirmiz, the insect genus
Kermes. (See carmine for further etymology
evolution.)
puce
From the French puce, ‘flea.’

FLOWERS, TREES, AND PLANTS


Photo by markop

By far the largest category of color origins, plants provide some of the world’s most startling colors.

Tea_Rose
Rosa odorata.
pink
Flowers of the Dianthus genus.
Geranium
Flowers of the Geranium or Pelagonium genera.
poppy
Flowers of the Papaver genus, whose seeds are used for cooking, medicicine, and narcotics.
Flax
Linum usitatissimum, used for its oil and fibers.
sunflower
Flowers of the Helianthus genus, bearing edible seeds.
saffron
Crocus sativus, used as a dye and as a cooking spice.
Dandelion
Taraxacum officinale, often used in salads and to make wine (considered a weed in North America).
Daffodil
Flowers of the Narcissus genus.
Mustard
Plants of the Brassica genus, used to make a condiment.
straw
Stalks of threshed grain.
reseda
Plants of the Reseda genus.
hazel
Plants of the Corylus genus, bearing edible seeds, hazelnuts.
spruce
Coniferous evergreen trees of the Picea genus.
Periwinkle
Plants of the Vinca genus.
violet
Plants of the Viola genus.
Hyacinth
Hyacinthus orientalis.
fuchsia
Plants of the Fuchsia genus.
petunia
Flowers of the Petunia genus.
Lavender
Plants of the Lavandula genus, whose flowers are used for aromatic purposes.
lilac
Flowers of the Syringa genus.
Heliotrope
Flowers of the Heliotropium genus.
heather
Calluna vulgaris.
Rose
Flowers of the Rosa genus.
crocus
Plants of the Crocus genus.
orchid
Plants of the Orchidaceae family.
mauve
Derived from the name of plants in the Malva genus, mallows.
pansy
Flowers of the Achimenes or Viola genera.
Amaranthine
Dervied from the name of flowers of the Amaranthus genus, also an imaginary flower
that never fades, ‘an amaranth.’
Sandalwood
Trees of the Santalum genus, used for their oil and their wood.
nutmeg
An evergreen tree, Myristica fragrans, bearing seeds used as a spice.
teak
An evergreen tree, Tectona grandis, used for its wood.
chestnut
Trees of the Castanea genus, bearing edible nuts.
cinnamon
Trees of the Cinnamomum genus, bearing edible bark that is used as a spice.
madder
Rubia tinctorum, whose root was used to make the dye alizarin.
henna
Lawsonia inermis, whose leaves are used to make a dye.
mahogany
Trees of the Swietenia genus, used for their wood.
bister
A pigment made by boiling wood soot (commonly beechwood). Also spelled bistre.
Ginger
Zingiber officinale, whose rootstalk is used as a spice.
ebon
Trees of the Diospyros, used for their hard wood (especially for piano keys).
ebony
Trees of the Diospyros, used for their hard wood (especially for piano keys).

Did I miss one? Add it!

Title img by Laurence Shan

jessica_icon.jpgAbout the Guest Author, Jessica Alexander
Jessica Alexander is a writer, translator, and hopeless devotee of overstuffed dictionaries. For more titillating etymologies, check out dailycharacter. Or, if you just want to send her love letters…



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11 Comments
Showing 1 - 11 of 11 Comments
This is very lovely. Inspired me!
Spice Inlay
mummy_brown
Mummy: Egyptian Brown. Exactly what it says: Bone ash and asphaltum, obtained by grinding up Egyptian mummies. The color actually came from the Asphaltum with which the bodies were embalmed. Obviously, this exotic color is no longer available; "its use was suddenly discontinued in the nineteenth century when its grisly composition became generally known to artists."
don't grind me up

i don't know if this falls into the animal derived names or not...
The second comment is very interesting and instructive.
I think the post is a beginning of explanation because you have to consider evolution and human Sociology. The Etymology is a complex object.
I'm wainting the next post.
interesting etc. etc. etc. (again)
"Hyacinth" and "Geranium" were both nice.
wonderful article. thnkyou
very cool!
Humans are animals, too! Thanks for that addition lizcrimson.

Yeah, many of these words have exceedingly complex etymologies (coming up soon are foreign languages, fabrics, etc...) Foreign languages and the names they have given to ancient dyes play a very large role in the names of some colors that we consider pretty basic, like "crimson" (from Arabic qirmiz, from the insect that they ground up - like mummies! - to dye things). I feel it's the contours of history that make language so fascinating...
You forgot Indigo....a blue dye obtained from various plants, esp. of the genus Indigofera.
Wonderful post!
Agreed, sogo2 - I classified it under "places" (coming soon) since the name originally comes from "India". :) Many colors fall into several different categories of those I created - anything I could move out of "Flowers, Plants, and Trees", I did.
Great write up! It's amazing how words get transferred, recycled, and reapplied in the English language.

Interesting fact about canary yellow:

Canary yellow is named after the color of the plumage of the domesticated variety of a species of bird found on the Canary Islands (wild Canary finches are not, in fact, commonly yellow!). The islands, in turn, are named (as mentioned in the blog) for the Latin word for "dog" due to the canine population of the islands at the time of its naming. However, as it turns out, the dogs weren't even native to the islands. They were the descendants of animals that previous visitors had left behind (intenionally or unintentionally).
Thanks for that additional information Yehonatan. I had no idea the dogs weren't native (I'll admit to not having delved farther than, 'hmm "canine"...."canary"...interesting" when I heard about the dogs and thought I should mention that the actual word came from a animal other than the well-known bird...)

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