Today, Americans celebrate their brave declaration of independence from British rule on July 4th, 1776 with plenty of red, white, and blue, the colors of its star-spangled banner.
As a nickname for the flag of the United States, the red, white, and blue is found by 1853. But what about those individuals words red, white, and blue? Let’s have a look at their origins, whose ancients roots make the US’s 242 years as a nation this year look ever so young.
Red is found in Old English (as red or read), recorded in early glosses of the Latin flavus (golden), fulvus (tawny), and ruber (red).
While the English red is rooted in a Germanic base (cf. German rot), it has cognates across the Indo-European languages, including Latin’s ruber, Greek’s erythros, Sanskrit’s rakta, Irish’s rua, and Czech’s rudy—the latter which looks like ruddy, a word indeed related to red.
The definition of red from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) reads like a little poem:
Designating the colour of blood, a ruby, a ripe tomato, etc., and appearing in various shades at the longer-wavelength end of the visible spectrum, next to orange and opposite to violet…
White is also founded in Old English, first recorded (as hwit or huit) in the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, describing two angels garbed in white.
White is also a Germanic word with deeper Indo-European origins: the Proto-Germanic *hwitaz looks back to the Proto-Indo-European *kweit- (white, shine), which also produces wheat. “Shiny” Indo-European cognates have been identified in the likes of Sanskrit, Avestan, and Old Church Slavonic.
Again, the OED offers a lovely lemma for white:
Of the lightest colour possible, that of milk or freshly fallen snow…
As far as our tricolor is here concerned, blue is the outlier. It’s attested in Middle English, around 1300, in a religious text describing “blue cloth” (or blu) along green ones.
Blue is borrowed from the French bleu, which originally meant “livid, pale, leaden, or bruised.” Livid, as “furious,” first meant “dark bluish,” the jump apparently on the grounds on the pale countenance of an upset person.
Via an earlier Germanic root (*blæwaz), the French bleu is ultimately grounded in the Proto-Indo-European *bhel- (shine, flash, burn), which went on to name various greens, yellows, grays, and blacks (a derivative) in its daughter forms, along with loads of other non-color words from blind to flame. The Latin flavus, which we saw above in red, is also from *bhel-.
The OED does not disappoint in its definition of blue:
Of a colour of the spectrum intermediate between green and violet, as of the sky or deep sea on a clear day.
Happy Fourth of July to my fellow Americans, at home and abroad! If you’re interested in other color etymologies, check out orange, purple, and sepia in my archives.
5 thoughts on “An etymological tricolor: red, white, and blue”
Wow, who knew the OED was so poetic in its color definitions! Also, thank you for introducing me to the word “lemma”. 🙂
Isn’t it so poetic, though? Dictionaries, while aiming to authoritative and objective, can still be quite beautiful. This author has written stories based on the example sentences he’s found in dictionary entries: http://www.dictionarystories.com
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Red isn’t close to German in terms of pronunciation but white (weiß) is. I’m taking formal German now, because trying to learn it alone wasn’t working out as well as studying Spanish w/out help did, and the pronunciation for ‘rot’ is more difficult than it looks. The ‘r’ is pronounced a lot harder than American r’s, but the teacher told me red and rot were related. I had no idea she was right. I’m taking German on Lingoda Online and most of the teachers are women. All but one have been wonderful. I don’t think teaching is his strong suit, not if his first words were “If I teach you something I expect you to remember it from that point forward and never forget it.”
I wondered ‘And you teach GERMAN? Besides that, I was the only non-Arabic student. Arabic has its own alphabet. They need to learn a whole alphabet first. Another student was Chinese; Chinese also has it’s own alphabet, or symbols or something. When I started learning the Russian alphabet, I saw how hard it was & I haven’t kept the entire Cyrillic alphabet in my memory, no matter how much I want to.
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It’s pretty cool how some of the most mundane words have some of the most interesting etymologies. As a former speller, I’d get sucked into hours of researching about etymologies and words that came from the same etymology yet mean completely different things.
Very well said. It’s wild the many paths a root can take!