Imagine not having a word for "yellow" or "beige" or "orange." For many years, English got by with a lot fewer words for color than we have today.
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Colors are such fundamental, tangible things that it’s hard to imagine not having names for them, but the number of words for colors varies widely by language and for many, many years, English got by without a lot of the color names we take for granted today.
In nearly all languages, the first colors to get names are black and white.
“Black” comes from very old words that meant “to burn” or “burned.” But the same old words also gave us “blake,” which is a now obscure word that meant pale, pallid, and ashen. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is often difficult to tell which of these two colors is meant in Old English texts when the context doesn’t make it clear. And to make it even more complicated, at some point, “black” could also be used to describe something bright, shining, or glittering, perhaps related to the idea that something that is burning is all those things. So it took “black” a while to be limited to what we think of as black today.
“White” is a little more straightforward. In Old English, it meant “bright and radiant, or clear and fair.” It could be describing something we think of as white such as snow, milk, or an old person’s hair, but it could also describe something transparent, or something light yellow, pale gray, or silver. Online Etymology Dictionary says “White” is also one of the oldest surnames in English, originally referring to people with fair hair or a fair complexion.
There are still languages today that have just two words for colors that are essentially white for all light or warm colors and black for all dark or cool colors.
That surprised me, but one thing that surprised me most was that the next color almost all languages name is red—one theory is that it’s because it is the color of blood.
Although black, white, and red all likely go back to the prehistoric language Proto-Indo-European (PIE), Online Etymology Dictionary states that red is “the only color for which a definite common PIE root word has been found.”
Red shows up in a lot of place names where it referred to the color of natural elements such as rocks and soil. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary lists Radcliffe, Radclive, Redmile, Redford, and Rattery, all from 1086, and slightly later Radly and Redhill. The same root for “red” also likely gave us the word for the color “rust.”
In those early days though, “red” was probably the name for the color rust, as well as purple, pink, and orange.
In fact, we call people redheads instead of orangeheads because at the time we started calling them anything, the word “orange” hadn’t entered the language as a color word, and the word “red” included the orangey color of red hair.
Interestingly, the Irish writer Stan Carey told me that the Irish word for red hair is different from the general Irish word for red.
After red, most languages add a word for either yellow or a spectrum that includes both green and blue that language experts sometimes call “grue.” Since blue and green are so prevalent in nature, I would have expected one of them to be the third word more languages would add, but I was wrong!
You can think of these as the five base colors that most languages have: black, white, red, yellow, and green/blue. And English today is described as having 11 main color words: those five base colors (black, white, red, yellow, and green/blue) plus brown, orange, pink, purple and gray, but some languages have more or different words. For example, Russian, Greek, and Turkish have separate words for light blue and dark blue.