or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A Whiter Shade of Black

I was reading one of my favourite blogs, Now Smell This (the link is over there to the left) this evening, and today's posting is about a scent called Vanille Eau Noire du Mexique. It sounds wonderful, but what grabbed me was the word "noire", which is French for "black". Where, I wondered, did "black" come from? It is clearly unrelated to the Romance languages with their variations of the French word ("negro" in Spanish, for example, or "nero" in Italian) and also to the Germanic languages, which have "schwartz" or some variation thereof. (We have a trace of that in the word "swarthy", meaning "dark-complected".) So where did our word come from?

I won't go into great detail, because, as the OED says, it is "a word of difficult history", and no kidding. But the word is descended from the Old English word "blaec", with the same meaning.

"Bleach" means "to whiten: to remove the colour from". If I were to tell you that it apparently evolved from that same root, "blaec", would you believe me? And yet that seems to be the case. How can the word "black" and a word meaning "white(n)" have the same source? It has something to do with that tangled history alluded to above (with a similar-sounding but unrelated word, "blac", meaning "shining" or "white", making an appearance and confusing the situation), but it also has something to do with the fact that neither white nor black are truly colours, and something that's colourless can be either white or black. The two polar opposites have much more in common that we generally think. ("White", by the way, is Germanic; the modern German is "weiss". The French word for "white", "blanc", gives us both "blanch" and "blank".)

It may also interest you to learn that "bleak" ("pale, wan") is also a relative of "bleach". I should have known; as I've said before, words ending with "-k" and similar words ending with "-ch" are often related, and these two continue the chain.


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