The History Behind English Color Names

09th Apr 2024


The English language is filled with words that carry more than just literal meanings; they hold centuries of human interaction, cultural exchanges, and subtle differences in perception. This is particularly true for the history behind English color names, which shows the complex connection between language, culture, and how we see things. Each color's name in English tells a story about the past, revealing the values and thinking patterns of the people who spoke it. The main point here is that color names are not just words; they represent a diverse range of historical influences. By exploring the origins of these terms, we can uncover how language has changed over time, how cultures have shifted, and how humans instinctively organize and understand the world through color. From the bright reds that symbolize both love and danger to the calm blues that exist in both the sky and sea, every color name in English has its own unique tale—a record of how humans have developed their relationship with light. Understanding this evolution helps us see how our ancestors viewed their surroundings and how those viewpoints still impact us today. While Chinese Translation Services offer ways to bridge modern cultural gaps through language with the help of a wide range of translation services, exploring color origins connects us to our shared history, showing just how closely intertwined languages are with the societies they come from.

The Evolution of Language and Its Impact on Color Naming

Languages are constantly changing and evolving over time. One important factor in understanding the development of many modern languages, including English, is Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Linguists consider PIE to be the ancestor of a wide range of languages spoken in Europe and Asia.

The Influence of Proto-Indo-European on Color Names

The English language has borrowed many color names from its PIE ancestor. Here are a few examples:
  • Black Comes from the PIE word bhleg, which means 'to burn, gleam'.
  • Red Derives from reudh, which means 'red, ruddy'.

How Linguistic Scholars Have Contributed

Linguistic scholars have studied these connections in great detail, uncovering how ancient language roots continue to shape our language today. They have shown how cultural interactions and migrations led to the spread and adaptation of color terms across different regions and time periods.

The Significance of English Color Names

The impact of PIE on English goes beyond just vocabulary; it also influences how we perceive and categorize colors in subtle ways. When we look at the development of these color names in English from their PIE origins, we can see a direct connection between the past and present, highlighting the evolution of language over time.

Understanding History Through Language

Exploring specific terms that come from PIE roots helps us understand how language reflects our shared human experiences. Each color name carries a piece of history with it, giving us a glimpse into the lives and surroundings of our ancestors.

Understanding Color Perception and Its Cultural Interpretations

Color perception is a fascinating aspect of human cognition that involves biology, neurology, and culture. Colors are simply light waves that objects absorb and reflect. When these light waves enter the eye, they activate photoreceptor cells in the retina, which then send signals to the brain for processing. This is where color perception happens.

The Three Dimensions of Color Perception

Humans generally perceive color in three main ways:
  • Hue This refers to the actual color itself, such as red, blue, or green.
  • Saturation It indicates the intensity or vividness of a color. A highly saturated color appears vibrant and bold, while a desaturated one looks more muted or pale.
  • Luminosity Also known as brightness or darkness, it determines how light or dark a color appears.
These three aspects together form the foundation of the HSL/HSV color model used in fields like computer graphics and photography.

The Influence of Psychology on Color Perception

Psychological factors can have a significant impact on how we experience colors:
  • Color blindness This condition makes it challenging to differentiate between certain colors or perceive them at all.
  • Synesthesia Some individuals with synesthesia may have unique associations between colors and other stimuli like numbers, letters, or sounds.

The Role of Culture in Interpreting Colors

Cultural symbolism plays a crucial role in shaping our understanding and interpretation of colors. Different societies have their own set of meanings attached to various colors:
  • Red Considered lucky and auspicious in China; often associated with danger or warning in many Western countries.
  • Green Symbolizes fertility and good luck in Ireland; sometimes linked to envy or jealousy in certain Western cultures.
  • Blue Regarded as a color of mourning in Iran; yet it represents peace and tranquility in many Western societies.
These examples highlight how cultural beliefs and norms can deeply influence our perception of color. It's essential to consider these cultural contexts when communicating visually or designing products for global audiences. Paint

The Fascinating History Behind Popular English Color Names

1. Black

The black color name comes from the Old English word blæc, closely related to words in other languages like blaec in Old Saxon, blac in Old High German, and blakkr in Old Norse, all of which have similar meanings associated with being black or dark. This deep-rooted term has carried connotations of darkness and the absence of light since ancient times.

Meanings Associated with Black

  • Darkness Historically, black has been tied to night and the vast unknown of the universe. It represents the primal void or chaos before creation in many mythologies.
  • Power Black often symbolizes authority and solemnity. In fashion, it conveys sophistication; judges' robes or formal attire exemplify this association.
  • Mystery With its ability to absorb light, black creates an aura of mystery and secrecy. It's frequently chosen for objects that aim to evoke enigma or concealment.
The significance of black extends into various cultural expressions, where it often denotes negative aspects such as death or evil but also positive attributes like elegance and formality.

2. White

The white color name comes from the Old English hwit, linking back to the Proto-Germanic root *hwitaz. Similar formations are found across Indo-European languages, reflecting a common ancestral term.

Meanings Associated with White

  • Light White is universally associated with light, often considered the purest color due to its reflection of all visible wavelengths of light.
  • Purity Culturally, white stands for purity and innocence. It is traditionally worn by brides in Western cultures and used in religious ceremonies to denote virtue.
  • Innocence White's associations with cleanliness and virginity further amplify its representation of innocence.
White's broad spectrum reflects various symbolic meanings, ranging from peace (white doves) to surrender (white flags).

3. Red

The red color name comes from the Old English read, which has cognates in other Germanic languages such as Old High German rōt and Gothic rauþs. These terms all hark back to the Proto-Indo-European root *reudh- meaning "red" or "ruddy".

Meanings Associated with Red

  • Passion Red's vividness incites feelings of passion and energy. It is often associated with love and desire.
  • Love Celebrations like Valentine's Day prominently feature red, symbolizing romantic affection.
  • Danger Simultaneously, red warns of peril; it is used in signs and signals to alert attention due to its high visibility.
Red’s dual nature as both an attractor and a warning sign illustrates its powerful impact on human emotions.

4. Green

The green color name comes from the Middle English word grene, akin to the Old English grēne, with similar roots across Germanic languages pointing back to a Proto-Germanic word *grōni. This term embodies growth and life.

Meanings Associated with Green

  • Nature Green is emblematic of plants and forests; it signifies life and natural abundance.
  • Growth Throughout history, green has been a harbinger of spring and rejuvenation—themes central to various cultural rebirth myths.
  • Fertility The fertility of land for agriculture has been visualized through green's representation, marking it as a color of prosperity.
Green continues to play an essential role in modern symbolism related to ecology and environmentalism due to its deep connections with nature.

Lesser-Known Color Etymologies in the English Language

1. Blue

The blue color name has a deep-seated history in the English language, often associated with both sky and sea. This hue's name traces back to the Old French word bleu, which is of Germanic origin. Linguistically, it can be linked to the Old High German word blao, meaning 'shining' or 'luminous', indicative of blue's natural luminance in the world around us. In culture, blue represents a paradoxical mix of tranquility and melancholy. It's the color of clear days and calm waters but also serves as a universal symbol for sadness—as captured in the genre term 'the blues'. Historically, blue pigment was both rare and costly, reserved for high-status garments and art during the Renaissance, which may contribute to its association with authority and dignity.
  • Historical Use Blue was prized in ancient civilizations like Egypt where it decorated tombs and artworks.
  • Literary References In literature, blue often symbolizes loyalty and fidelity.
  • Blue in Heraldry Represents steadfastness, strength, and loyalty.

2. Pink

The color name pink in English has an interesting history that might surprise most people. Unlike most other basic color names, the term pink is not derived from Proto-Indo-European roots. Instead, it can be traced back to the Dutch flower 'pinck oogen', which means "small eyes". The term was later shortened to 'pink' and started to represent the color we know today only around the 17th century.

Symbolism of Pink

In terms of symbolism, pink often represents love, gentleness, and femininity in modern Western cultures. However, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, before the 1940s, pink was considered a masculine color because it was closely associated with red - a color linked to strength and power.

The Influence of Culture on Color Meanings

Culture plays a significant role in shaping our associations with colors. Despite our common interpretations now, it's important to remember that color meanings can change drastically over time and vary across different societies.

3. Yellow

Delving deeper into the color spectrum, let's unravel the story behind the yellow color name. This term in English can be traced back to the Old English word 'geolu,' which means the color of gold or ripe grain. It's interesting to observe that this association with ripe grain and, by extension, harvest and prosperity, has remained important through centuries.

Cultural Meanings of Yellow

From a cultural perspective, yellow has various meanings:
  • In Western societies, it is often associated with happiness, warmth, and caution.
  • On the other hand, Eastern cultures like China revere it as a symbol of nobility and good luck.

Yellow in Literature

The vibrant hue also appears in literature, often used to:
  • Evoke feelings of joy
  • Depict decay and illness
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers are classic examples of its symbolic use.

4. Brown

The term brown in English has a noteworthy history and cultural significance. This color name originated from Old English 'brun', used to describe the color of objects naturally found in nature such as wood, earth, and hair. In Middle English, the term expanded to include a broader range of hues similar to the modern understanding of brown. This evolution reflects how language adapts to the changing environment and societal needs. Culturally, brown holds various associations across different societies. It commonly symbolizes stability, reliability, and resilience due to its connection with earth and nature. In contrast, in Western cultures, it can signify dullness or lack of sophistication. Interestingly, unlike primary colors that have been part of languages since ancient times, brown is considered a secondary color name. This detail suggests that our ancestors might have categorized colors differently than we do today.

5. Orange

The color orange in the English language has a fascinating origin story. This vibrant hue didn’t have its distinct name until the 16th century. Before that, it was referred to as ‘geoluread’ in Old English, which essentially translates to ‘yellow-red’. The term orange was adapted from the Old French word ‘orenge’, derived from the Arabic term ‘nāranj’ and Sanskrit word ‘naranga’, both denoting the fruit we know as orange. This indicates that the color orange was named after the fruit, not the other way around. In terms of cultural associations, orange often symbolizes creativity, warmth, and enthusiasm. It is also associated with autumn and harvest time in Western cultures due to the changing color of leaves and ripe pumpkins. Interestingly, in Eastern cultures like China and Japan, orange can signify courage, happiness, love, and good health. This demonstrates how perceptions and interpretations of colors can significantly differ from culture to culture. The exploration of lesser-known yet intriguing histories behind more color names in English continues with this vibrant hue, adding another dimension to our understanding of color etymologies.

6. Purple

Purple, a color name deeply rooted in the English language and culture, carries a history as rich as its royal hue. Derived from the Old English word purpul, the term traces back to the Latin purpura and the ancient Greek porphura — names for a type of shellfish used to produce a costly purple dye. Associated with royalty, power, and luxury due to the high expense of the original dye, purple still holds these connotations today. It’s also commonly linked with mystery, creativity, and magic. In nature and visual arts, variations of purple — such as lavender or violet — bring forward their unique cultural interpretations. For instance, lavender often symbolizes femininity and elegance, while violet is associated with spirituality and imagination. Pondering upon these fascinating associations provides insight into how colors like purple permeate all aspects of life. Whether in fashion, literature, or daily language use, these color terms carry more than just visual descriptions; they hold significant cultural implications.

7. Gray

The gray color name has its roots in the Old English word “grǣg,” which was used to describe a color between black and white. This word can be traced back even further to the Proto-Germanic “grēwaz,” which also means a similar color range. Gray holds special meanings in the English language and culture. It is often associated with neutrality, modesty, and practicality. Additionally, it is commonly linked to industrial environments because of its representation of materials like concrete and steel. In literature, gray is frequently used to convey emotions such as sadness, darkness, or uncertainty. One example is E.L. James’ novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” where the gray color symbolizes complexity and mystery. It’s worth noting that there are spelling differences that have emerged over time. “Gray” is more commonly used in American English while “grey” is the preferred spelling in British English.


The historical evolution of English color names, the cultural symbolism of colors, and the linguistic origins of color words come together to tell the story of how humans perceive and describe colors. This complex relationship shows how language and culture shape our view of the colorful world around us.
  • Historical Evolution The journey from Proto-Indo-European roots to the wide range of color terms in modern English shows a lasting influence.
  • Cultural Symbolism Colors hold significant symbolic meanings that differ across cultures, yet also reflect common human experiences and emotions.
  • Linguistic Origins The origins of color words reveal how ancient societies engaged with colors, contributing to a shared understanding over time.
Take a dive into the fascinating world of color etymologies. Exploring this realm will deepen your understanding and appreciation for the colors that enrich our language and lives.