Monday, November 22, 2010

Etymology Monday: True Colors

When I was just a wee nerdling, I had a lot of trouble sleeping, and I'd usually have to read myself down. (I still do, especially if I'm feeling sick or hungover.) One of my favorite things to do was to page through an ancient dictionary of the thousand most commonly used English words. At least, that's what I remember it being, although I can't remember the publisher or find it on Amazon. At any rate, I was fascinated by the way they defined colors.

What does it mean, to define a color? When you think about it, it's a pretty difficult task. There's the technical definition, of course-- red being light of a wavelength between 700 and 635 nm, etc. -- but that means very little in practical terms. The most common way is to describe it in reference to an object that is that color, as, for instance, the OED defines blue as "of the colour of the sky and the deep sea; cerulean," and then in the second definition, "Said of the colour of smoke, vapour, distant hills, steel, thin milk." First of all, I understand how "blue" refers to each of these things, but I wouldn't say that any of them are definitively blue. Second, of course, is the problem of all self-referential definitions; it depends on the ability to perceive and identify the color blue, and anyone who cannot will never understand it. No blind person will ever get an accurate sense of color by looking it up in the dictionary, and no one with chromatic vision would need to. Who, then, are these definitions written for? I got the sense, reading them, that they were written for the pleasure of the lexicographer. They are richly associative and often, as in the case of the OED's rhapsody on blue, surprisingly poetic.

Where do the color words themselves come from? In blue's case, it is glossed in the OED as "a common Romanic word," and also a Germanic one, so it seems that different forms of the stem were borrowed into English from different languages depending on the period. In some languages, the root meant "yellowish-grey," and the etymological entry in the OED suggests that color names were fairly fluid. The roots of blue all seem mainly to have meant "the color blue," but in the case of green, it comes from the same Old Teutonic root which gave us "grow," equating the color with its predominant appearance in nature. Both green and red are among the earliest Old English words, and red traces all the way back to Sanskrit (and, I imagine, Indo-European before it) and shares roots with "rust" and "ruddy." Black is described as "a word with a difficult history"; the entry goes on to say that, fascinatingly, the word "black" and a word meaning "shining, white" were in Middle English nearly identical-- "often distinguishable only by the context, and sometimes not even by that." Orange is a comparatively recent (1300s) loan from French, and pink came to us later still (1500s); before borrowing these words, "red" was used for these shades as well. Purple was also originally red, or rather, it was a particular shade of red dye obtained from the shellfish purpura and used to denote high-ranking officials. Yellow, also ancient, appears to derive from an Indo-European root which also gave us "gold" and "gall" (the yellow bile of humorism.)

I used to find a peculiar comfort in reading these definitions, and now, revisiting them, I still do. They are small sensual moments in the middle of the technical and self-important dictionary bluster, reminders of the intimate connection between word and world.


Posted by Silent Five @ 10:09 PM

Word of the Week

gymnosophy [jim-NAH-so-fee]

n. Philosophical, amusing, or nonsensical insights realized when naked, as in the shower or in bed. (recent coinage: att. S. Galasso, 2010)

Victoria and Albert enjoyed a spot of postprandial concupiscence culminating in a night of gymnosophy and coffee and crumpets at dawn.

The Silent Top Five: Bacon-Flavored Desserts

1) Bacon cheesecake.
2) Bacon gumballs.
3) Bacon ice cream.
4) Bacon-orange bars.
5) Bacon apple pie.

Standard Disclaimer

This is all in no way meant to incur copyright-infringement-related wrath. I'm harmless. I promise. Oh, and if you're offended by anything I may post herein, I guarantee I didn't mean to do so (unless, of course, you are a humorless prig. In which case, go right on and be offended, with my blessings.)