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HUE do you think you are? Colours from Classics.

Wordy Weekly XXXII

Latin and Greek both have some beautiful words for colours and some (well, quite a few actually) have made their way into English. So we start with Greek.


Χρωματα = Colours

From the Greek for colour, we get chromatography, the technique fir separating the component parts of a mixture. The connection with ‘colour’ came from Mikhail Tsvet. He developed the technique when he discovered how to separate different plant pigments.

i) μελας (melas) = black. From this we get ‘melancholy’ = a state of deep sadness. It literally means ‘black-bile’. Rather apt given the meaning of the English word, although the actual sound of the word is rather more poetic. Melas can also mean dark. It is the origin of the name Melanie, which sounds very lyrical. Ahh, but you know that you’re friend Melanie is a DARK horse!

ii) γλαυκος = grey; also flashing. Quite how those two go together, I am not sure. But there you go. Athena in the Iliad is γλαυκωπις (flashing eyed). The sight condition glaucoma comes from the Greek for grey, denoting a clouding over of vision.

iii) ξανθος = tawny, reddish-brown, yellow, orange-ish. As you can see this word denotes quite several colours on the red-brown-yellow range. I have a friend who called her daughter Xanthe, a lovely name. The scientific term xanthophyll comes from this. This refers to the red, orange, and yellow shades of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. They contain carotenoids, of which beta carotene is one. For more, see:

The -phyll part comes from the Greek for leaf.

iv) χρυσος = gold. The lovely flower the chrysanthemum takes part of its name from the Greek for gold. The word means ‘gold flower’, the second part coming from the Greek anthos meaning ‘flower’. There is also the rather lovely word, chryselephantine, which means ‘made of gold and ivory’. The great statue of Athena on the Parthenon made by Pheidias was chryselephantine. Very sadly, the Athenians probably melted her down at the end of the disastrous Peloponnesian War.

v) χλωρος = green, fresh green. Chloros, hence where we get chlorophyll from (Greek for ‘green leaf’), the green pigment in leaves. If your name is Chloe, your name comes from this word’s related noun chloē which means ‘green shoot’, new growth in Spring. Sweet, right?


Colores = Colours

Yes, our word for colour comes from Latin, color.

i) cyaneus = dark blue, blue. We have kept this word in English, the colour cyan, which also denotes a shade of blue, a hue close to turquoise. The medical condition cyanosis, the bluish appearance of the skin due to lack of oxygenation. And for crime fiction fans, the poison cyanide’s name comes from this colour. It is a light blue colour at room temperature. Our words adopt the Latin spelling, but the ‘y’ in the word hints at a Greek parent word. Ultimately, the Latin derives from the Greek κυανεος, also denoting a shade of blue.

ii) albus = white. Quite apart from Dumbledore’s first name, ‘albumen’ – egg white, is also a derivative. ‘albino’ comes from albus, a condition that leads to a pale complexion due to a lack of pigment. It might seem strange that ‘album’ also comes from this word. However, there is also a link through the meaning ‘white’. An ‘album’ referred to the white tablet on which an edict or public notice was recorded in ancient Rome.

iii) ruber = red. We have several derivatives from the Latin for red. ‘rubric’ might seem unrelated in meaning at first, but in fact this stems from the fact that ‘rubrica’ referred to a red dye used to make red letters for public documents. So, ‘the rubric’ or ‘the rules’, simply mean instructive writing in red. ‘Rubells’, German Measles refers to the colour of the rash. And here is one of Dr George’s Old-Fashioned fancies: if you are blushing you are ‘erubescent’. Or you may be a fan of the beautiful stone, the ruby.

iv) roseus/rosa = rose, a rose, the colour pink. Our beautiful flower the ‘rose’ obviously comes from the Latin, but there are also a few others. The skin condition ‘rosacea’ refers to the reddened rash that appears on the skin. The rosary, a string of beads used in prayer, originally denoted a garland of roses, rosarie in Middle English.

v) viridis = green. Green is a flourishing colour in Latin and denotes a man in his prime, ‘vir’. Yes, I know, ladies, it is very annoying. Never mind. The surname of the wonderful operatic composer Verdi is ‘Green’ (seems to prosaic when you put it like that). Anyway, we do have a couple of words that derive from the Latin. Another of my Old-Fashioned Fancies, ‘viridescent’ – going green. Another is ‘verdant’, meaning green, with a sense of flourishing abundance of plants, crop yield etc.

As we have discussed so many lovely colours, I end with ‘SPECTRUM’. It originally means a ‘ghost’ or ‘apparition’ in Latin, but came to denote a ‘range of vision’, and hence came to the ‘colour spectrum’.

Finally, a silly bit of trivia:

Which Christmas song is this? HIC CERVUS NASA RUBRA!

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