or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Colour My World

Dammit. Now that song's gonna be stuck in my head all day.


As I was walking home from work last night, I was greeted by a gorgeous, overwhelming scent: the lilacs are out in full flower and their perfume is intoxicating. There are hundreds of lilac bushes within a five-minute radius of my apartment and I can't walk down the street without burying my nose in a cluster of the florets. It's irresistible. The word "lilac" has an unexpected provenance: I figured it was French (doesn't it look as if it might once have been "lilaque" or some such?), and it does have its distant roots in an obsolete French word, but its true origin is an old, old Arabic word, "nilak", meaning "dark blue". I suppose this is a case of what I talked about yesterday: one person's pale violet is another's dark blue.


I once had an argument with someone as to the definition of the colour "chartreuse". She was unaccountably convinced that it was a hot pink, when I insisted it was a bright yellowish green. A quick trip to the dictionary proved me right, and I won the bet (but I don't remember ever having collected on it). I'm rather glad that Answers.com wasn't around at the time, because their definition would still have settled the bet in my favour, but with the most bizarrely written dictionary definition I've ever seen:

"A strong to brilliant greenish yellow to moderate or strong yellow green."

What, they couldn't replace the word "or" with "to" to make the thing even less comprehensible?


The folk etymology for "lavender" is that it come from the Latin "lavanda", meaning "washing" (whence French "laver", "to wash", and our cluster of words such as "lavage" and "lavatory"), on the grounds that the plant's perfume was added to wash-water to give clothing a clean, fresh scent. The OED calls bullshit on this, and suggests that although the origin is murky, a better guess is that it's related to "lividus", "bluish".


A constant theme in English is that many of our commonest words come to us from French or German, thanks to waves of invasion. Of the seven colours in the rainbow, only one doesn't come to us directly from either of these languages. Go ahead, guess which:

Is is red? Orange? Yellow? Green? Blue? Indigo? Or violet?

Red, yellow, and green all come to us from German ("rot", gelb", and "grĂ¼n", respectively). Orange and violet are from French ("orange" and "violette"). Blue was influenced by both languages ("Blau" in German, "bleu" in French). Indigo is the odd man out: it looks and is Spanish, from the Latin "indicum", eventually leading us to such things as the Hindu religion, the Indus river, and Greek "Indikos", meaning "of India".


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