Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

Have you ever wondered where color names in the English language came from?

You might be surprised to know that certain colors or shades are not necessarily common or don’t even exist in other languages.

Today we have Mignon Fogarty from Grammar Girl Podcast. Her focus on today’s episode is on the origin of color names.

You will learn how certain color names came to be, and how you can level up your English by going deep into a topic such as the nuances of colors to expand your vocabulary.

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How The Most Common Color Names Came To Be

Though there are many colors that we recognize and communicate about currently, it started out much simpler.

There are some basic colors that started out in the English language and were talked about centuries ago.

You can see what some of these are currently known as, and how they came to be–colors tell a very important and interesting story.

  1. Black and White: In nearly every language, these are the first colors to get their names. In old English we might think of white as the same thing as the color of snow. It has evolved over time though because it was also used for lighter colors or things that were transparent. This goes as far back as recorded language. As far back as you can look, you will see just black and white as the only colors. Black used to cover so many different colors, and it comes from an old word that meant “burned.” It covered things that were bright or glittery or so many different colors–so it was very broad and was used for a wide range of different colors or shades.
  2. Red: Most languages name red as the next color. It is also used for the color of dirt, and you see this used in many place names. Think of city names like “Redford” and that is because of the red in the soil. You even saw red in some of the original last names like “Redman.” You might think of the word “redhead” and wonder why it is used when the hair coloring is more orange. It is because red was used as a more general term, and so it covered this hair coloring in addition to so many other things. The word “orange” came much later and so using red worked out just fine.
  3. Yellow and “Grew”: Yellow was typically the next color name to come up in many languages. There was also another spectrum of colors that came about around the same time which was a combination of green and blue, which was referred to as “grew.” This rounded out the next colors that came about early on. These were the five basic colors, but then it evolved from there.
  4. Other colors came out after depending on the language: In some languages, you saw other colors such as brown, orange, pink, purple, and grey. Some languages have different words for different shades, such as dark blue or light blue. Different languages have different words such as “turquoise” which originated in French and is used in some countries. It may not necessarily be a color name used in all languages. Pink for example didn’t start the way that you know it now. It was used more to describe a process of making the color when it first started.

These were the first and most common colors that existed as part of old English.

Many of the color names that you know and talk about now have evolved through the years.

Some languages and cultures may have many more color names than others.

Color Names Have Evolved Over Time

We mainly think of 11 main colors, and in some languages there are many variations to this.

Some colors started out as something completely different than what you know them as today.

It may have started out with a color name because of the process that was used to find it.

Different shades of color are identified and used in certain languages, and others are not.

If you look at the example of pink, it may have come from a word that was used for flesh or skin and then evolved into a part of our language.

If we think of colors like grey and brown, they come from words used in early English.

Before the 1800’s, all of our colors and color names came from natural sources.

Maroon for example came from the word for a chestnut.

Then later in the 1800’s, because of advances in chemistry, people could make colors using synthetic dye.

This was motivated by the fashion industry in France, and so you saw a whole new range of colors and shades come out of this.

With this new movement, you saw new color names such as mauve, aquamarine, and so many more.

The 1800’s was the time when new colors evolved and you see the roots to so many different color names.

Looking at the origin of all the different color names can be interesting and helpful, particularly when you see how few actually existed early on.


You may have never thought about the origin of color names, but it can be a smart thing to focus on if you want to widen your English vocabulary.

Go deeper with this topic. Take the time to do some research of your own and you will find that it helps you a lot.

This can be a great way to elevate your language and to get some historical insight in the process.

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

Mignon’s Bio:

Mignon Fogarty is better known as Grammar Girl — five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards, an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network.

She is the author of seven books about language, including the New York Times bestseller, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

She has also appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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