History That Never Was

Home of Dawn Vogel: Writer, Historian, Geek

Fun for Friday: Color Etymology

Rainbow of colors

Why doesn’t anything rhyme with purple? Or orange? It might have to do with the origins of those words.

This article on Gizmodo talks about the etymology of colors, or how they got their English names. But did you know that not all languages have words for every color? And there’s also the belief that no one saw the color blue until modern times. (Which could be the explanation behind Homer’s “wine-dark sea”.)

When I was in a linguistics class in college, we had a project where we developed our own language to put it through linguistic changes. We started with a vocabulary of about 20 English words, and then followed a series of changes to the language. Just picking those 20 words was a challenge in and of itself, and my group solved the color problem by including light and dark with referential words. So we could say “light sky” to mean a blue color, while “dark sky” would refer to a darker blue.

Thinking about color when you’re writing about other cultures can be a fun experiment, especially when you start getting into alien species or sentient animals. How do they talk about color? Or is color not a thing they observe?


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