We English speakers have been using the word red as a noun meaning ruddy or red in color since the 1200s. There are versions of red in Old Norse, Middle Dutch, Old Saxon, and most the Germanic languages. In Old English we mostly spelled it read, which gave us the last names Reid & Read (names based on a color, much like the surnames Black, Brown, Green, & White). In 1781 the idiom red-handed came into usage, in 1898 the idiom to see red was born, & the idiom red carpet came about in 1934.
The word orange arrived in English about 1300 through French, Latin, Arabic & Persian from naranga-s, a Sanskrit word meaning orange tree. Interestingly, orange continued to refer to the orange tree until the 1540s, when it finally made its way onto the artist’s palette to label a color. It’s believed the initial n was lost in English due to confusion introduced by the article a/an. The confusion becomes evident by reading this aloud: an orange, a norange. Additionally, in 1795, secret supporters of William of Orange referred to themselves as the Orangemen, in 1961 the US military labeled a toxic pesticide & weapon Agent Orange, & in 1963 we began referring to orange juice as OJ.
The Proto-Indo-European root *ghel- gave English speakers the word yellow (which appears in slightly different form in Norse, Swedish, Dutch, & German). Originally, *ghel- meant to shine. Middle English speakers appear confused on yellow’s definition, as at different times it meant blue-grey, hazel, & greenish-yellow, though we appear to have landed on the color we now call yellow by 1400 or so. Once we’d landed there, yellow developed any number of negative, inappropriate, or downright corrosive meanings:
-in 1787 English speakers developed the slur yellow to refer to people of Asian descent
-in 1856 yellow began to mean cowardly
-in 1867 we started referring to a mongrel as a yellow dog
-by 1881 yellow dog started meaning contemptible person
-in 1898 yellow journalism referred to sensational chauvinism in the media (inspired by an earlier publicity stunt involving yellow ink)
-in 1924 yellow-bellied was born, meaning cowardly
In the coming week, may all your color-references be positive.
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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