COLOR TERMS—DID YOU KNOW?
Adapted by Dr. Wayne Handlos fromBotanical Latin by William T. Stearn, 1966
Cook’s Red Spider Bird Dancer Caliente Pink Golden Bird’s Egg
Out of the dyestuff and pigment industries of the ancient Mediterranean world have come
many color terms used in botanical Latin. … The lack of color terms indicates a lack of
need, rather than a lack of ability, to perceive and discriminate.
The most celebrated of the ancient dyestuffs was the Tyrian purple, which has given botanical
Latin the termspurpureus, phoeniceus, puniceus, tyrius and porphyreus. Embedded in
their soft tissue, certain marine mollusks, notably species ofMurex, have a small gland
which secretes a viscid colorless fluid. On exposure to light, however, this molluscan liquid
turns yellow and green, then changes to bluish red colors. From it the dyers of antiquity
made their most costly dye, the purple of Imperial robes, known to the Greeks asporphyra,
to the Romans aspurpura, which apparently was not purple as now understood but crimson.
Another source of red dyes in antiquity was provided by the oak-infesting coccid insects,
Kermes vermilio, which lives on oak trees (Quercus species). The dye was obtained from
the female insects swollen with eggs soon to hatch. The ancients at one time regarded these
globular gravid females clinging to twigs of oak as a kind of berry (in Latincoccus), hence
the adjectivecoccineus applied to the scarlet or crimson color obtained from them. It was
also recognized that these grains were a kind of insect orvermiculus (little worm), whence
the name ‘vermilion’. The insect itself later became known by the oriental namekermes
(derived from Sanskritkrmis, old Persian kerema worm), from which the adjectives kermesinus,
chermesinus and carmineusapplied to carmine are derived. There exists a number
of other Latin words for red colors, e.g.ruber (red), sanguineus (blood red), roseus (rose),
miniatus(scarlet), cerasinus (cherry red), … and also for yellows, e.g. croceus (saffron),
luteus(yellow), flavus (yellow), aureus (golden), cereus (wax yellow), sulphureus (sulfur),
melleus(honey yellow). … There are fewer words for green and blue. According to Kober
(1932), ‘it is undoubtedly because it was so hard for the ancients to produce blue and green
that we have so few words for these colors’. Latin is also deficient in words for grey and
brown; bothgriseus and brunneus used in botanical Latin are of German origin.