Black: The adjective form of the word showed up first, coming from the Old English blaec, dark, or the word for the color we know it as (which explains why we call black black). While I can’t find a specific date for adjective black, the verb, as in blacken, came into being in the early thirteenth century. Before Old English, it was the Proto Germanic blakaz, burned, and Proto Indo European bhleg, burn, gleam, or flash (and, somewhat ironically, the origin word for bleach). In any case, the general thinking is that something burned was dark, so that’s how a word for burned morphed over the years into black.
Red: The noun showed up in the mid-thirteenth century and the adjective sometime before that. In Old English it was read, with the same meaning, Proto Germanic had rauthaz, and way back in Proto Indo European there’s reudh, again same meanings.
Orange: This should be interesting because it’s not just a color but a fruit—in fact orange the color didn’t show up until the mid-sixteenth century. Orange the fruit showed up in the early fourteenth century from the Old French orange/orange, which was taken from the Medieval Latin pomum de orenge and before that the Italian arancia/narancia. The reason for the N switch is because it’s what’s known as a faulty separation, where a word and the article preceding it switch where the n is supposed to be (an apron was originally a napron).
Yellow: This is also from Old English, but the word was geolu/geolwe. The g seems to be in all the ancestors of the word, from the Proto Germanic gelwaz to the Proto Indo European ghel, which is a word for both yellow and green. As for why it changed to a y, I have no idea. Being of Germanic origin, the g is probably hard, so I don’t know how that gets around to a y. Maybe our quota of colors starting with g was filled.
Green: While ghel is both green and yellow, our word green has a slightly different origin. It comes from the Old English grene or groeni, which comes from the West Germanic gronja and Proto Indo European ghre, or grow, as in plants. It’s theorized that yellow comes from a word also meaning green because vegetation changes from green to yellow.
Blue: We actually have a date for this one! Blue showed up in the early fourteenth century as bleu or blwe, from the Old French blo, which means pale, blond, discolored, or blue. From there it can be traced to the Proto Germanic blaewaz and Proto Indo European bhle-was, which was “light” colors like blue, blond and yellow. I guess we use it for the blue color because we came up with another word for yellow : ).
Purple: In Old English it was purpul, although originally it was purpure/purpuren. What happened is what’s known as a dissimilation, which means that speakers changed the sound of one syllable to make it different from the other. You can see where purpure comes from when you look at the classical Latin purpura and further back the Greek porphyra, both with the same color meaning.
White: Back to Germanic origins with this one. White was hwit in Old English, and khwitaz in Proto Germanic, and before that kwintos/kwindows, meaning bright, in Proto Indo European.
That’s it for colors this week. Maybe in another post, I’ll do more shades. I think it’s interesting that purple and orange are the only one with a clear Latin influence, and even they have forebears in Greek and Italian. Usually you can’t look at the etymologies of English words without tripping over the Roman tongue.
Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English