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COLOR TERMS—DID YOU KNOW?

Adapted by Dr. Wayne Handlos  from Botanical 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 terms purpureus, phoeniceus, puniceus, tyrius and porphyreus. Embedded in

their soft tissue, certain marine mollusks, notably species of Murex, 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 as porphyra,

to the Romans as purpura, 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 Latin coccus), hence

the adjective coccineus applied to the scarlet or crimson color obtained from them. It was

also recognized that these grains were a kind of insect or vermiculus (little worm), whence

the name ‘vermilion’. The insect itself later became known by the oriental name kermes

(derived from Sanskrit krmis, old Persian kerema worm), from which the adjectives kermesinus,

chermesinus and carmineus applied 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; both griseus and brunneus used in botanical Latin are of German origin.