Joanna here: I was thinking about orange the other day. Not so much the delightful fruit, but “orange” as a color. I talked about this before in an earlier posting. Here.
What I was specifically mulling over was how folks in England had been confronted with the color orange every day – flowers, sunsets, trees in the fall, ochre mud on their mukluks – from the day they hiked out of Doggerland and ended up in Britain. Somehow they didn’t have a special word for orange and apparently didn’t miss it,
In Sanskrit the orange fruit is a nāranja. Making its way through Arabic, Old Provencal, Old French and Middle English turned it into an orange and the color came from that in C14.
So what did they call that color before the Fourteenth Century? Apparently geoluhread. As in, "Wow. Love your geoluhread i-pod!" Geoluhread would roughly translate as yellow-red and I am sure we are all grateful to Sanskrit for its intervention into what would have been a dismal shade with a long name.
Did folks think of orange as a distinct color, or was it just part of red? Roses, rubies, blood – were red. Pumpkins – also red.
When does a hue split off and become a different color?
Consider the dark red-brown color that gets called mahogany, dried blood, earth-toned, rust, and so on. Another language might have distinct words for for the color of tree trunks versus the color of dried oak leaves. To us, sienna and umber and burnt orange are different shades of brown.
So I was thinking about this and how we perceive colors we don’t have a name for. But fascinating though that may be, I turned my mind to the question of when certain color words found their way into English, with a bonus helping of "What words can I use in the Regency?"
There are lots of colors that didn't split off on their own – i.e. nobody noticed them as anything special – till the Victorians.
Mauve: Word comes from the mallow flower. Latin and then French. It was first used as a color name in 1856 by William Henry Perkin to describe the color of his first brand, spanking new aniline dye.
Magenta: is another aniline dye name, this one from 1860, named in honor of the Battle of Magenta in Italy fought the year before.
(The good guys won, by the way.) The town’s name traces back to Roman general and emperor Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius (d. 312) who was also, overall, a good guy. Yeah, magenta.
Taupe: Comes from Latin talpa meaning the small mammal of the family Talpidae. A mole. Taupe arrives in English in 1906, describing a fashionable color.
Moleskin by the way, referred to the actual skin of moles (in the 1660s) and later to a thick, slightly fuzzy and gray fustian fabric (in 1803.) Now mostly nifty little notebooks. But it all dates back to the moles.
Because aquamarine gem was ground to make oil paint, (in much the same way lapis lazuli was,) use of it as the specific color may date that far back. If our artist hero calls the heroine's eyes aquamarine in 1810, he may be referring to the gem or to the specialized paint pigment made from it because he's that kinda guy.
Aquamarine used to specifically mean a bluish-green color John Ruskin, 1846. The cards in Disney’s (1951) Alice in Wonderland (1865) could indeed have sung, “We’re painting the roses red. Not blue, not green, not aquamarine.”
Aqua by itself is later, in 1936.
Turquoise: Interestingly enough, the name of the stone makes no reference to its color. It comes from Old French pierre turqueise or "Turkish stone." The word entered English in the C14.
As a color name, though, it only dates to 1853.
Beige: From C13 Old French bege which means "the natural color of raw wool and cotton." Beige wandered into English from dialect French in 1858 describing a fine wool fabric. Beige didn’t graduate to being a color till 1891.
Lavender: doesn’t show up as a color till the 1840s so one can no longer dress an elderly aunt in it in 1819. Sorry.
Jade as a color,1865. Apricot as a color, 1906.
And I come to Khaki which I've added largely because it so refreshingly does not come to English from Latin via French.
Yes. It's another Victorian word. It's Persian via Urdu as Khak meaning "dust." So now you know the color of Persian dust.
Khaki hits English as a kind of cloth in 1857. Its first use as a color isn’t easy to pin down, but it’s after 1863.
Now you see why Heyer talks about puce rather than one of that whole slew of colors that hadn’t been born yet.
Puce: Is picked up in 1787, from French puce, meaning flea-color. Also flea.
We got the cousins of this word in Latin pucilem. Also Sanskrit plusih, Greek psylla, Slavonic blucha, and Lithuanian blusa. “That it could be generally recognized as a color seems a testimony to our ancestors' intimacy with vermin.”
Lots of good insult words there.
But pink is fine for the Regency. So are lilac, russet, cerulean, azure, ruby, rose, violet, tan, amber … you got just a whole ballroom of dresses right there.
I could ask, “What’s your favorite color?”
But I think it’s easier to consider "What color do you really hate?"
For me it’s asphalt road color. Ugly. Just ugly.
Why couldn't they make them pink?
Or a nice restful aquamarine?