Last post, we saw how *sekw-, a Proto-Indo-European root for “follow,” makes for a surprising connection between such words as soccer, sectarian, and second. This root still has some tricks up its sleeve, though, for it weaves the thread between medieval fabrics…
…and the classic board game Clue.
Scarlet has many associations: letters, fevers, pimpernels, Johansson’s, cardinals, royalty. But I don’t that textiles are one we typically make. At least anymore.
The word scarlet is from the Old French escarlate, which, in turn, is handed down from Medieval Latin’s scarlatum. Both forms named did name scarlet as a color, but they originally referred to fabrics and cloths that were often dyed this vivid color. In his discursive dictionary of English word origins, Jordan Shipley notes:
[English] “scarlet” is roundabout from Arabic, which had borrowed [Latin] ‘sigillatum’ to apply to a shorn cloth, which might be blue, green, or brown as well as the brilliant red that survived in the word because it was the “the king’s color.”
The Arabic Shipley refers to is siqillat (variously transliterated) and referred to rich cloth. More specifically, Ezra Klein defines the Arabic siqillat as “tissue adorned with seals” and Eric Partridge offers “a fabric decorated with seals.” Many etymologists see the Persian saqirlat (also variously transliterated) as an intermediary vehicle between Latin and Arabic.
The Latin sigillatum he refers to means “adorned with little figures” or “patterns in relief,” literally meaning “sealed.” It is a diminutive form of signum, “sign,” “seal,” “figure,” or “symbol,” among other meanings. The English derivatives of signum are legion: assignment, signal, designate, signature, significant, ensign, and consign, among so many other active words and forms. Ernest Weekley offers this tidbit on sign: “Earliest sense as verb as to mark with the cross, and most of our ancestors ‘signed’ their letters in the same way, instead of ‘subscribing’ their names.”
For sign, all signs point back to (OK, the best signs we know of point back to) that Proto-Indo-European *sekw-. The literal interoperation of signum is offered as “mark to be followed” or “standard to be followed.” Which leads us to *sekw-, or, more specifically, a suffixed form of *sekw-no.
Sign, Sealed, Delivered
Embroidered patterns? Brilliant colors? These were expensive and labor-intensive, so it’s no surprise that scarlet became associated with nobility. But the source of the dye might be a bit humbling, as the sources of many dyes are. Scarlet was obtained from a dye known as kermes, named for the insect named for the oak tree it inhabited. More specifically, as Wikipedia puts it, the dye is “derived from the dried bodies of female bodies of insects.” This kermes–likely originating from a Sanskrit word for “worm”–is the source of other luxurious English color words crimson and carmine. Speaking of worms, vermilion, another brilliant red hue, is from the Latin vermiculus, “little worm,” named for the cochineal insect the dye was obtained from.
But how do we account for this Latin to Arabic and back, if that indeed be the (still hypothetical) case? Trade, linguistic and cultural contact, luxury textiles, and metonymy, a figure of speech using a salient feature of an object to name it (like a tongue for a language). So, perhaps the Latin sigillatus somewhere in Asia Minor was used of fine, embroidered textiles, was borrowed by speakers of Persian and neighboring Arabic speakers, who applied it to the fine textiles, siqillat in some form or another, and somewhere along the way the colors of the rich cloths became defining features, with opulent scarlet jumping out due to royalty reasons, the name gradually receding from the cloth to the color, making its way back into Medieval Latin as scarlatum, reshaped by the Latin’s daughters, and sticking around in English as scarlet after all these many years. Hypothetical, y’know?
Weaving It All Together
The Latin sign pushed out the native English word for it, represented by the Old English tacen and cognate to the word “to teach.” And, in its own singular way, a poetic passage manages to weave all our concerns here together: In Arthurian tales, the maiden Elaine gives Lancelot a token (as was the chivalrous wont) of her love, a “sleeve of scarlet, broidered with great pearls,” as Tennyson versifies it in his famed Idylls of the King. He wears it during a jousting tournament, but only because Guinevere is there. Her love unrequited, Elaine later dies of a broken heart, and she is floated down the Thames back to Camelot, a story also inspiring Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, a Miss Scarlet in her own, very, very non-Clue way.