Purple, and other colours


Students can have fun seeing how the dictionary tries to define colours: Chambers gives blue as ‘the colour of the unclouded sky’, and yellow as ‘the colour of sulphur, egg yolk, gold, a ripe lemon, a primrose, etc.’ The 1944 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary mentions buttercups.

Interesting also are the connotations of some colours: yellow, blue, green, scarlet, etc., some of which have passed in and out of fashion. For example, the boy Leo in The Go-Between is taunted for being green, and Charles Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody is asked if he has an estate in Greenland. This was popular usage.

The suggestion is sometimes made that Latin is poorly furnished with names for colours, and of course it does not have anything like the number of English words, so many of which are imports over the ages. But it has a selection:

albus white

candidus glowing white

ferrugineus dark red, rusty

roseus, ruber, russus, rufus shades of red

coccinus, miniatulus, puniceus scarlet

rutilus red inclining towards golden

fulvus deep yellow, tawny, (eg of lions)

croceus saffron coloured, orange-red

flavus golden yellow, reddish yellow, flaxen coloured

luteus golden yellow, the colour of an egg yolk

luridus, gilvus shades of pale yellow

ravus greyish yellow

viridis green

prasinus leek green

caeruleus blue

violaceus violet

pullus dark grey

spadix dark brown, chestnut brown

Then there comes the group of words—purpureus, phoeniceus, blatteus, conchyliatus, ostrinus—usually translated as purple, and here translation fails. These words are often used with the connotation of riches or royalty, and purple has that connotation in English also.

But purple in modern English denotes a colour closer to mauve or violet (it is interesting to bring up these two words in Google Images), whereas the above words in Latin denote something more like what we would call crimson (a word that originates in Arabic).

The 2006 edition of Chambers is straightforward about it:
purple… a mixture of blue and red; crimson(hist); the Tyrian crimson dye, obtained in ancient times from various shellfish (Murex, Purpura, Buccinum, etc)

Next post: The Purple Chamber, and more about colours.

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