Dirty, rotten “sepia”

A mix of Hurricane Ophelia and Saharan dust storms turned the sun an ominous red over much of the UK earlier this week. It also caused the sky to look an eerie yellow or, as many commented, sepia. And this fancy color word, as it turns out, has a very cuttle-y, and very un-cuddly, origin. 

A somewhat sepia-colored sepia. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sepia’s undertones

Sepia is in a special class of etymologies we’ve seen a few times before on the blog: everyday words derived from inks or dyes obtained from the secretions of bugs or mollusks. Purple was originally the “purple-colored dye” produced by sea snails. Shellac goes back to the “dark red dye” made from certain insects. And sepia ultimately means “cuttlefish” in Ancient Greek.

Yes, you’re favorite Instagram filter has it roots in a squid-like mollusk. (The cuttle in cuttlefish, while we’re at it, is from the Old English cudele, possibly from a Germanic root meaning “bag,” referring to its ink sac). 

Sepia is first found in English in 1569, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, as another name for the “cuttlefish,” from the Latin via Greek sepia (σηπία). When the cuttlefish is alarmed, it can emit a special ink, from which we’ve been making a rich, brown pigment since antiquity. 

Sepia pigment was popular in monochrome watercolor paintings in the 19th century, and so we see sepia referring to it by 1821, here borrowed from the Italian seppia.  Sepia tones were also popular in monochrome photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hence our associations with the color.

As for the deeper origins of the Greek sepia, etymologists connect it to the verb sepein, (σήπειν), “to rot.” The thinking goes, the cuttlefish “befouls” the water when it spits its dark ink.

The noun form of sepein was sepsis (“putrefaction,” σῆψις), which has been used since the late 19th century in medicine for a kind of widespread infection in the body. A septic tank, as certain bacteria break down our waste, features the adjective form of the word, and antiseptic, or “sterilized to the point of dullness,” shows the further life of the word. The prefix sapro– is also related, meaning “rotten,” e.g, saprogenic, “causing decay.”

England’s sepia sky, we might say, looked a bit sickly, jaundiced—or septic, if we’re to apply today’s etymological insights.

m ∫ r ∫

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2 thoughts on “Dirty, rotten “sepia”

  1. So you’re an Etymologist? I have a friend who’s a Lexicographer. He says an Etymologist is different but he always knows where so many words originated that I get confused as to how it’s different.
    I’m a Paramedic. I like to know where medical words come from even though most of them are Latin. I used to be married to a doctor who said most medical words are from German but I hardly hear any German words; I guess knee is though that’s the only one I can think of. Words like salpingotomy, radius, cardiology and others are Latin or Greek. Intubate is also Latin but I always have to write it in when I’m using digital media; I have to have it manually approved bc no online dictionary will include intubate as a word. It’s slightly annoying. I do it almost every day and record that I do & the computer marks up my patient care reports in red, claiming they’re wrong. Dictionaries don’t recognize succinylcholine either.I guess I understand that one but I don’t comprehend why they haven’t included intubate as a word.
    How can I find out where medical terminology originated? My avocation is l;earning how English words came into the language and how to use them.
    I spoke German first & had to take English speech classes from a Speech Therapist bc they thought I talked wrong. I talked like Germans do. My dad was German.


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