Puce and taupe sound more colorful than flea and mole

In a recent post, I discussed how speakers of different languages see color differently. Continuing with the theme of color, I thought that it might be interesting to explore how certain colors obtained their names.

For instance, turquoise is derived from a French word for "Turkish," as the bluish stone for which the color is name was known in French as "la pierre turquoise" (the Turkish stone). Logically, such colors as topaz, sapphire, jade, amber, ebony, and emerald also come from their respective stones, just as gold and silver come from precious metals.

The colors ultramarine and aquamarine refer, not surprisingly, to the sea, as well as to stones. Aquamarine originally referred to the color of a type of stone that came from the Mediterranean region and suggested the color of that sea, whereas ultramarine was used to designate the color of a stone (lapis lazuli, imported from Asia), that originated across the sea ("ultra" in this sense meaning "beyond" and not "excessive").

Pink was named for a flower known as a "pink," although the etymology of the word gets a bit murky, as the original word leading, by way of Dutch, to the name of the flower may have meant "small" or "hole." Violet and rose have similar floral origins.

A number of color names come from fabrics. These include ecru and beige from French, as well as "scarlet," from Persian. Colors have also been named for dyes or dye-producing plants. Purple comes from Greek via Latin. Crimson comes to English through Old Spanish, Arabic, and Sanskrit, while indigo, meaning "the Indian dye," comes from Portuguese. Magenta was taken in the 19th-century from one of Garibaldi's then-sensational Italian victories and used to market a type of photographic dye.

Some colors have surprisingly bizarre origins. Puce, originally a French word, means "flea-colored." Taupe, also French, refers to the color of a mole (the animal, not the skin blemish). Perhaps more appetizingly, maroon comes from a French word for a type of chestnut. Teal, an English word with Old English roots, is named for a color pattern found on a type of river duck, also known as a teal.

For an interesting discussion on many of these colors as well as observations on how certain color names, such as khaki and auburn, have shifted to denote different colors over time, please visit Word Wide Words.

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)

No comments: