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Why Blue Is Called Blue And The History Of All The Color's Names

Jan 28, 2014 04:50 PM EST by Michael Thrasher

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Colors are one of the first things you learn as a child and for good reason. Consider colors within transportation alone. They tell us to stop, go and yield. The examples go on but we'd be here all day.

Everyone knows the names of colors but few understand where those names came from. Melissa at Today I Found Out did some research and the answers are interesting.

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All of the colors have names dating back to the earliest languages. Those names vary language to language, but the order in which they were named is fascinatingly similar. 

"As different societies developed names for colors, across the globe, isolated cultures went about naming the colors, but weirdly, they all generally did it in the same order. Called the hierarchy of color names, the order was generally (with a few exceptions): black, white, red, green, yellow, and blue with others like brown, purple and pink coming at various times afterward," wrote Melissa, whose full name does not appear as part of her byline.

She did a nice job briefly summarizing the early English languages that led to Modern English — Proto-Indo-European (PIE), Proto-Germanic and Old English — but let's cut to the chase.

Why is the color blue called blue? That answer and more is below.

Black: Black derives from words invariably meaning the color black, as well as dark, ink and "to burn."

Originally meaning, burning, blazing, glowing and shining, in PIE it was *bhleg. This was changed to *blakkaz in Proto-Germanic, to blaken in Dutch and blaec, in Old English. This last word, blaec, also meant ink, as did blak (Old Saxon) and black (Swedish).

The color was called blach in Old High German and written blaec in Old English. One final meaning, dark (also blaec in Old English) derived from the Old Norse blakkr.

White: White began its life in PIE as *kwintos and meant simply white or bright. This had changed to *khwitz in Proto-Germanic, and later languages transformed it into hvitr (Old Norse), hwit (Old Saxon) and wit (Dutch). By the time Old English developed, the word was kwit.

Red: In PIE, red was *reudh and meant red and ruddy. In Proto-Germanic, red was *rauthaz, and in its derivative languages raudr (Old Norse), rod (Old Saxon) and rØ(Danish). In Old English, it was written read.

Green: Meaning grow in PIE, it was *ghre. Subsequent languages wrote it grene (Old Frisian), graenn (Old Norse) and grown (Dutch). In Old English, it was grene and meant the color green as well as young and immature.

Yellow: Thousands of years ago, yellow was considered to be closely related to green, and in PIE it was *ghel and meant both yellow and green. In Proto-Germanic, the word was *gelwaz. Subsequent incarnations of German had the word as gulr (Old Norse), gel (Middle High German) and gelo (Old High German). As late as Old English, yellow was written geolu and geolwe

Blue: Blue was also often confused with yellow back in the day. The PIE word was *bhle-was and meant "light-colored, blue, blond yellow" and had its root as bhel which meant to shine. In Proto-Germanic, the word was *blaewaz, and in Old English, it was blaw.

English also gets some of its words from French, and blue is one of them. In Old French (one of the vulgar Latin dialects whose height was between the 9th and 13th centuries AD) blue was written bleu and blew and meant a variety of things including the color blue.

The histories of brown, purple, orange and pick are totally worth reading too and can be found here.

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