An etymological tricolor: red, white, and blue

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.

Its flag may be red, white, and blue, but the US is properly a land of many colors. (Pixabay)

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Etymology, with an “eagle” eye

Maybe in some parallel universe it wasn’t the Philadelphia Eagles who won Super Bowl LII. No, not the New England Patriots but the Philadelphia Ernes. For erne was the usual word for “eagle” in Old English, and in my hypothetical Twilight Zone, French and Latin didn’t sack Anglo-Saxon like so many blitzing linebackers.

Etymologically, the Philadelphia Eagles main team color isn’t midnight green. It’s “dark brown” or “black.” (Pixabay)

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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)

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Purple‘s etymological reign

After Prince’s sudden death last week, we saw an outpouring of grief, memories, tributes, retrospectives, and purple, the artist’s iconic color. While nobody wore purple like Prince did, the English language has long been sporting the hue.


The English purple is actually a variation on an earlier form, purpure. Those double r’s can be tricky to say, so, in a process called dissimilation, English speakers transformed the second r into l, a related sound.

Purple and purpure are both found in Old English, when they first referred to purple garments. The color historically shaded towards a dark red, such as crimson, and bedecked emperors, kings, senators, and, at one point, cardinals. Purple long signaled power. But by the 15th century, purple sheds its clothes – and status – to name the color as such.

English borrowed purpure both from French and directly from Latin, which had purpura. Like English’s purple, this purpura meant “purple garment” and the color “purple,” but it also signified “purple dye.” For, as the Oxford English Dictionary paints it, purple was fundamentally a pigment “obtained from the hypobranchial gland of various gastropod molluscs found in the Mediterranean.” Or sea snails.

A fittingly elaborate shell of species of Murex, the genus name of sea snails from which Tyrian purple was obtained. If you hold it to your ear, they say, you’ll hear an “ocean of violets in bloom.” Image by Kate Childers on

The ancient Phoenician city of Tyre made its name for the dye it famously produced: Tyrian purple. Making this dye was an expensive and laborious process, and so only the wealthiest could afford it, hence the color’s historic association with status and power.

Latin’s purpura is from the Ancient Greek, πορϕύρα (porphyra), similarly naming “purple” in color, cloth, and shellfish. Etymologists suspect the Greek word is ultimately loaned from a Semitic source.

Citing the use of purple to describe the sea, philologist Walter Skeat suggests purple is formed from a Greek verb meaning “to stir up,” as in the waters of a wine-dark ocean amid the purple-dark clouds of a storm. Skeat’s explanation is a bit of etymological purple prose, however; this expression for “excessively ornate writing” we can ultimately credit to the Roman poet Horace.

While Skeat’s theory for purple washes right out, his reference to “wine-dark seas” in Homeric verse is still significant in the story of color words. The story is a truly fascinating one, involving the astonishingly late development of blue, that ubiquitous color of sea and sky, in language. I’ll leave its telling to the radio show and podcast, Radiolab: “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?”

For more on color words on this blog, enjoy earlier posts on orange and scarlet. And for more on dyes, see my post on shellac.

The association between the artist’s name and purple’s royal past certainly suggest a reason Prince so branded himself with the color. But perhaps there are other explanations, too. As an artist, Prince blends (and bends) so many genres into his music, so many identities into his persona. Perhaps like purple, a color that blends red and blue. Or purple, whose history blends both the high and low, worn by god-like kings but worked out of the sea.

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*sekw- (part ii)

Last post, we saw how *sekw-, a Proto-Indo-European root for “follow,” makes for a surprising connection between such words as soccersectarian, 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.

One of the many iterations of Clue’s lustily lethal Miss Scarlet. Image courtesy of

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 scarlatumBoth 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: assignmentsignaldesignatesignature, significantensign, 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.

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