Most English words labeling basic colors seem to have been around since Old English was spoken.
Lavender came through Old French from Latin and appeared in English in the 1300s. It originally referred to the lavender plant, which was often used in soaps for washing clothing, giving us the words laundry, latrine, lather & lavatory. It wasn’t until 1840 that the word lavender began meaning a pale purple color.
Blue came to English about 1300, meaning the color of the clear sky. Blue was so associated with the sky that by the 1640s, the blue meant the sky, which we still see in the idioms, like a bolt from the blue & the wild blue yonder. Blue came through Old French from a Proto-Indo-European word that meant light colored: blue, blonde, or yellow. Awfully specific, eh? That word comes from an even earlier Proto-Indo-European source meaning to shine, flash, or burn.
Purple has been with us since some time during Old English. It came through Northumbrian and Latin from Greek. The original word had three distinct meanings: the color purple, the shellfish from which a purple dye could be extracted, & generally splendid attire.
The word green has been around for a similarly long time. It was originally a noun meaning the color of living plants, which gave us the village green & the putting green. For years the word green was used not only to refer to the color green, but to cast aspersions on fickle people, something etymologists guess had to do with the fact that in northern climes anything green will eventually change. In the 1400s, green began to be used to refer to unripe fruit or vegetables, & soon green was not only applied to people of tender age, but to gullible people of immature judgment.
Stay tuned for next week’s foray into colors of the warm variety.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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