I recently finished reading The Secret Lives of Color, by Kassia St. Clair, a lovely little book of stories, published in 2017, about hues familiar and strange. In the latter category is Isabelline (sometimes called Isabella), said to be the color of the Spanish Infanta Isabella’s white linen underwear after it had been yellowed by age and wear (and – how to put it – bodily excretions); and minium, a bright orange-red used in the Middle Ages. (St. Clair doesn’t say how it got its name: It comes from the Minius River on the Spanish-Portuguese border, now known as Miño or Minho.) I’d known that puce, a brownish purple, means “flea” in French, but I hadn’t known that gamboge, a word describing a shade of yellow-orange, comes from “Cambodia” – formerly “Camboja” – where the pigment was extracted from the sap of Garcinia trees.
To me, the most interesting color stories in the book are about non-colors: shades that don’t appear in the rainbow or on color wheels. Take the browns: “That there is no bright or luminous brown led to its being despised by both medieval artists and modernists,” writes St. Clair, which may be why I find the browns so endearing. Also, their names tell wonderful tales.
Khaki, for example, means “dusty” in Urdu: Originally applied to military uniforms in the mid-19th century, it was a form of camouflage that made soldiers “invisible in a land of dust.” Russet now evokes autumn leaves, apples, and gleaming auburn hair, but as recently as 1930 it described a grayish-brown color; and although it’s derived from a Latin word meaning “red,” its first usage, in the Middle Ages, was as a term for coarse woolen cloth “in any color ranging from dun through to brown or gray.”
I hadn’t known that mummy was ever used as a color name, but there you go: It’s defined as a “rich brown bituminous pigment” that was originally made from white pitch, myrrh, and, yes, the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies (“both human and feline,” according to a Wikipedia entry). Mum means “wax” in Persian; before mummy meant “embalmed body,” it meant “medicine prepared from an embalmed body.”
Then there’s fallow, which you probably know as a modifier for “fields” (that are plowed but unseeded during the growing season). Fallow is also a type of Old World deer.
I’d always assumed the two fallows were connected, but they derive from different sources. The first fallow comes from Old English fealh, which has always described a type of land. The second fallow comes a different Old English word, fealu, which is related to “pale” and means “light brownish yellow.”*
I learned something new about how we describe black, too. St. Clair writes that Latin had two primary words for black: niger (which gave us noir, nero, and negro in French, Italian, and Spanish, respectively, as well as the Niger River and the country name Nigeria) and ater, which is related to a root meaning “blackened by fire” and which survives in English in atrocious. These were two different shadings, if not shades, of black. Niger was glossy black, and could have a metaphorical meaning of “wicked,” “malicious,” or “inauspicious” (a nigra avis was a bird of ill omen), while ater was matte black and skewed toward “mournful” or “gloomy” in its figurative senses (dies atri were unlucky days). St. Clair skims over these distinctions; I found a deeper explanation here.
And what of black? St. Clair is mum on its etymology, which is unrelated to its Latin or Germanic equivalents. (We do say swarthy, which is related to German schwartz, but only when referring to people, not animals or cloth or anything else.) Black was blæc in Old English; it came from a Proto-Germanic word, blakaz, which meant “burned.” Which makes it a semantic relative, if not an etymological one, of Latin ater.
By the way, I have it on good authority that Kory Stamper, author of a different “secret life” book — Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries — is working on a new book about color names. I can’t wait.
* If at this point you’re trying to remember the lyrics to “Try to Remember,” well, follow, follow.