Posted by: episystechpubs | June 17, 2018

Editor’s Corner: Ebony and Ivory

Over the years, we’ve talked about colors fairly often. We’ve delved into words for colors, like fuchsia and puce; we’ve talked about how colors are supposed to correspond to certain moods like feeling blue or being green with envy; and other times we’ve discussed different idioms about colors, such as blue flu or red herring.

So, you might think that’s enough about colors. Not so! There’s nothing that gets my gears turning like seeing a 200 gel-pen pack on special at Costco. And now, Grammar Girl has published an article about language and colors I don’t want you to miss. It’s a long article, so let’s break it up into a few relaxing days.

Colors are such fundamental, tangible things that it’s hard to imagine not having names for them, but the number of words for colors varies widely by language and for many, many years, English got by without a lot of the color names we take for granted today.

In nearly all languages, the first colors to get names are black and white.

Black

“Black” comes from very old words that meant “to burn” or “burned.” But the same old words also gave us “blake,” which is a now obscure word that meant pale, pallid, and ashen. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is often difficult to tell which of these two colors is meant in Old English texts when the context doesn’t make it clear. And to make it even more complicated, at some point, “black” could also be used to describe something bright, shining, or glittering, perhaps related to the idea that something that is burning is all those things. So it took “black” a while to be limited to what we think of as black today.

White

“White” is a little more straightforward. In Old English, it meant “bright and radiant, or clear and fair.” It could be describing something we think of as white such as snow, milk, or an old person’s hair, but it could also describe something transparent, or something light yellow, pale gray, or silver. Etymology Online says “White” is also one of the oldest surnames in English, originally referring to people with fair hair or a fair complexion.

There are still languages today that have just two words for colors that are essentially white for all light or warm colors and black for all dark or cool colors.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services


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