Dear Language Nerd,
This Philosoraptor has perfectly phrased my question:
Whoa, that question has some “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” mind-games going on, but the answer is definitely the second option: first you have the fruit, and the color gets its name from there.
This is true of many many colors: indigo, robin’s-egg blue, lime green. “Pink” was first the name of a bright pink flower; “gold” and “silver” were metal-names before they were colors; and “green” comes from the same root as “grow,” invoking the color of plants. For some words, the heavy lifting was done in other languages: purpurus was the Latin word for a shellfish that you could juice for its dye, girmiz was the Arabic word for a similarly juiceable worm, and they came into English as colors for dyed cloth, purple and crimson.
Using actual objects is often the best way to define a color. We’re not all going to wake up one day and say “Right, we are using ‘orange’ now, everybody get on that!” We say “Hey, I just saw Emily, her baby was wearing a dress that made it look like an orange!” “Did you see that sinister orange-colored shadow?” “Don’t pick the yellow flowers and don’t pick the red flowers, pick the ones that are in-between, like an orange,” and so on. Eventually “orange” steps out on its own. It might take a while, though. “Orange” was the name of a fruit for some three hundred years before it graduated to a wider color role.
So our colors mostly come from some real-world analogue. But what about other languages? Does everyone come up with “pink” eventually, or are there groups that care about 17 varieties of green but don’t bother to distinguish red and yellow? The stars of the linguistic-color-term community are Berlin and Kay – universalists want to be them, relativists want to refute them. Their findings, as showcased with pretty sweet maps at the Language Atlas, are that languages usually have the same basic color terms, and rather weirder, that they tend to add them in the same pattern.
Theoretically, languages with only 2 color terms would have “dark” (black plus cool colors like blue, green, and purple) and “light” (white plus warm colors like yellow and red), but that is very much theoretical. What kind of self-respecting language would have only two colors?*
Beyond 2, the order is:
3 color terms: black, white, and red (the most famous member of this language band is Tiv, and if Tiv is the John Lennon, we are never going to make it to Ringo)
4 terms: black, white, red, and either yellow or green
5 terms: black, white, red, and both yellow AND green
6 terms: black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue
These comprise the most important color pairs: black/white, red/green, and blue/yellow, which have generally been borne out by eyeball scientists as being the categories human eyes best sort colors into (though you’ll have to ask the Bio Nerd if you want details on that). These categories have fuzzy boundaries — the Japanese word for “blue” contains a lot of shades that English speakers would call “green,” including the color of a traffic light — but they seem to be The Big Six across languages.
After these, languages become more varied. English has five more basic color words: orange, pink, purple, grey, and brown. Now, arguments rage about what exactly counts as a “basic color.” If native speakers usually describe “lavender” as “a shade of purple,” then lavender is not basic. You don’t usually hear purple called “a shade of blue,” though, so purple is. Don’t consider my list the absolute end of the story, but mostly people agree that “dusty buttercup” can be subsumed under “yellow.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that people see different colors — a group that speaks a language with only three color terms doesn’t see the world like those sexy old photos where everything’s black and white except the femme fatale’s red lips. Colors are simply combined into larger folders within our mental filing cabinets, so yellow might be included with red, or with white. Greek, for example, has two folders for blue, a light blue and a dark blue, as separate as English pink and red. An English speaker can see that a given shade of blue is lighter than another, but we stick them into one folder.
Orange is the oddball because, as my main man Casson explains, it is “the only basic color term to have a transparent entity sense.” That is, most of the colors that are obviously related to a real-world thing are decidedly infrequent — salmon, lilac, eggshell. The origins of our basic colors are usually much older and more obscure. On the whole, we’ve forgotten that black (probably) descended from Germanic blakaz, meaning “burned.”
This question, though, misses a much more serious weirdness of “orange.” The real question we need to be asking ourselves, orange-wise, is this: why do we say “orange” instead of “norange”?
Perhaps we’ll find out next week.
The Language Nerd
*Alright, we can talk about Yeli Dnye, but color me skeptical (Hah! Color me! I totally did that accidentally, good job self).
UPDATE: Someone finally asked took me up on noranges!
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References this week include:Some examples from Ronald Casson’s extremely interesting essay “Color shift: evolution of English color terms from brightness to hue,” from the collection Color Categories in Thought and Language edited by Hardin and Maffi. Casson has dozens of other etymologies, from vermillion to buff, so if your interest in color words is piqued that would be a good place to start.
Naturally, Berlin and Kay’s Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution.
The World Atlas of Language Structures, which has maps of all sorts of weird things, not just color terms.
The Linguistics of Color Terms, by Smelser and Baltes, which is mostly a thorough summary of the cranky back-and-forth between debating linguists, which I find amusing.
Someone’s syllabus, which just had things laid out in a handy order — thank you, organized teacher somewhere!
The always-helpful OED (in a moment of weakness I looked at etymonline too but then it was wrong, how could I have ever trusted you etymonline) (Edit: In retrospect this was a douchy thing to write, see comments below/apology in the next post.)