Rainbow Etymology

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The recent wonderful rainbows have made us wonder – where do we get our names for the colours from?

The word ‘rainbow’ originates from the Old English ‘renboga’ – ‘regn’ meaning ‘rain’ and ‘boga’ meaning ‘bow’. Imagine the arch shape an arrow might make when flying through the air, or the way your body curves when you bow down – both meanings of ‘bow’ descend from the Proto-Germanic ‘bugan’. Another Old English word for rainbow is ‘scurboga’ meaning ‘shower bow’.

Like ‘rainbow’, ‘red’ also comes from Proto Germanic roots. The Old English ‘read’ descendsfrom the Proto-Germanic ‘raduaz’.

While ‘orange’ has been used to describe the fruit since the fourteenth century, the word wasn’t used to describe the colour until the sixteenth century. It comes from the Old French ‘orenge’, from the Medieval Latin ‘pomum de orenge’. The Sanskrit word ‘naranga’ meaning ‘orange tree’ evolved as it moved across the world: becoming ‘narang’ in Persian, ‘naranj’ in Arabic, and ‘naranza’ in Venetian. In Italy, the word changed from ‘naranza’ to ‘narancia’ to ‘arancia’. Have a go at saying these words one by one from ‘naranga’ to ‘orange’ – you can really hear how, as people from different places first discovered the fruit, their different accents led to the version of the word we use in England today!

The word ‘yellow’ comes from the Old English ‘geolwe’, from the Proto Germanic ‘gelwaz’, which in turn comes from the PIE ‘ghel’ meaning ‘to shine’. In Greek mythology, Khloe is one name for the goddess of harvest – the name literally means ‘young green shoot’ and is linked to ‘khloros’ meaning ‘greenish-yellow’. Can you hear the similarity between ‘yellow’ and ‘Khloe’?

Green’ comes from the Old English ‘grene’, from the Proto Germanic ‘gronjg’. The word was used both to refer to plants and to describe an unwell looking person from the thirteenth century, and its definition evolved to include some types of fruits and vegetables in the fourteenth century. The colour has been associated with environmentalism since 1971.

The word ‘blue’ dates back to the fourteenth century and comes from the Old French ‘blo’ meaning ‘pale, pallid, wan, light-coloured; blonde; discoloured; blue, blue-gray’, from the Proto Germanic ‘blæwaz’, from the PIE ‘bhle-was’ meaning ‘light-coloured, blue, blonde, yellow’, from the PIE root ‘bhel’ meaning ‘to shine’. Notice how yellow or blonde is included in many of these definitions, and how the words ‘yellow’ and ‘blue’ come from very similarly spelt PIE roots meaning ‘to shine’. The Indo European definitions of separate colours are unreliable and many Indo European languages seem to have had a specific word to describe the shimmery bluey-greeny-grey of the sea. When you imagine light reflecting on the water, it becomes much easier to picture how these very different colours might have had the same word (or similar words) to describe them.

Indigo’ literally translates to ‘blue dye from India’. It dates back to the sixteenth century and originates from the Greek ‘indikon’.

Like the word ‘orange’ is used to describe things that are the same colour as the orange fruit, ‘violet’ is used to describe things that are the same colour as the purple-blue flower with the same name. The word dates back to the fourteenth century and came into English via the Old French ‘violete’, which in turn comes from the Latin ‘viola’.

If you enjoyed this article, why not check out some of our other etymology posts?

Have a great week!

Sources: https://www.etymonline.com

06 Jul 2015
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