The language of COLOUR From crimson to vermilion

Colour has played an important part in humankind’s history. Our ancestors painted the walls of their caves with coloured pigments made from ground up soil, plants and animals. Thousands of years later, paints and dyes were big business as inventors competed to produce valuable new commercial dyes. The sources of these early organic pigments were myriad. The result is a collection of words as vibrant as the rainbow itself.


An Arab merchant arrives in Venice, early in the 15th Century. He’s here to trade bolts of vibrantly coloured silk cloths. This wealthy and diverse city, which has been a vital trading link between east and west for thousands of years, welcomes him with open arms. Coloured fabric, particularly silk, is a valuable commodity. As such, the materials and techniques used to create the rarer colours are jealously guarded. This secrecy around the production of dyes creates an air of mystery that makes the fabrics themselves even more sought after.

Among our merchant’s precious cargo of fabric, might be some of a bright, slightly purpley red. He describes this colour as kermes in his native Arabic. The kermes is the species of insect crushed to create the dye. By the time the bright red cloths have been bought and sold across Europe, the word has morphed into cramoisin in French and crimson in English.

  1. JADE

Many of our names for colours are derived from minerals. Sometimes, it was the namesake mineral, ground up, that created the dye that took on the name. On other occasions, the mineral has simply had a colour of the same hue named in its honour. That’s the case with jade – the name of the stone is also used to describe the pale greeny-blue hue that typifies it.

The word jade has its origins in the unexpected world of crackpot science and unlikely cures. In 16th Century Europe, the stone was marketed as an effective treatment for certain diseases of the liver and kidneys. As a result, it became known as piedra de ijada (stone of the kidneys), in Spanish. The medical claims were shown to be bunkum, but the name stuck, and ijada became jade in English.

  1. KHAKI

In ancient Persia, a camel caravan makes its slow and steady progress across the desert. The camel traders wear loose robes that cover everything but their eyes. These offer protection from the harsh sun, and also from the clouds of beige sand and dust that whip across the brutal landscape.

Kahk, meaning dust, must have been a widely used word in this dry and windy environment. It filtered into Urdu as khaki. And when the British Army embarked on its military campaigns in India in the 1850s, it was khaki that inspired their new camouflage clothing. Designed to emulate as closely as possible the light browny-green of desert environments, it’s been used by armies around the world ever since.


1859 saw a decisive moment in the Second Italian War of Independence. A particularly bloody battle was fought that inspired the name of a colour we now associate most strongly with the CKMY printing model. Near the town of Magenta in North West Italy, French and Italian troops scored a strategically important victory over their enemies the Austrians. It was a gory skirmish, with over seven thousand men killed and buried in a mass grave near the battle site.

Very soon after the battle, a local scientist created a new purpley-pink dye out of coal tar. The patriotic inventor named the new colour magenta, to commemorate his country’s recent victory.


A straightforward one this. A marron in French is a sweet chestnut. The reddy-brown colour got it’s name from the colour of that chestnut. It’s been used in this sense in English since the end of the 18th Century.

The word for the colour is unrelated to the other definition of the word maroon, meaning to abandon on a deserted island.

  1. PUCE

In 18th Century France, there was a scourge that spared neither peasant nor royalty. Fleas. They were everywhere. Itchy fleas in your beret. Pingy fleas jumping all over your croissant. Pesky old fleas infecting you with bubonic plague. In our sanitised modern world it’s hard for us to imagine just how normal a part of everyday life these parasites were.

One place where you could guarantee a good crop of fleas was your bed. A mattress is a lovely home for a flea – warm, safe, slightly moist and with a banquet of fresh food served up nightly. That’s right – they drink human blood. And when Mr Flea (or Monsieur Puce in French) has finished his meal, he leaves a calling card behind. A tiny puncture in the sleeping victim’s flesh, which itself creates a small pinky-purple stain on their bedsheets. In France, the colour of this stain became known as puce, after the insect responsible for it.

  1. TAUPE

Let’s stay in France, and fast-forward to the early 1900s and an altogether less bothersome critter. Unless you’re a gardener that is. Or a worm.

It’s the humble mole that inspired the browny-grey colour we know as taupe. Taupe in French literally means mole.


This single word is enough to conjour up images in our minds of Caribbean seas and exotic shores. But it’s origins are a little closer to home. Depending on where home is, of course.

The valuable blue-green gemstone that gives its name to the colour was first discovered in Persia. It worked it’s way along trade routes to Europe via Turkey. It was this Turkish pit-stop that inspired the gem’s name. Turquois means Turkish in French.

  1. UMBER

It’s brown. A sort of rusty brown. It’s difficult to get too excited about brown surely? But this earth pigment, made from ground rocks containing various oxides, is an integral part of some of the world’s most famous works of art. Along with it’s earthy cousins, sienna and ochre, it influenced the art of oil painting for decades.

There are two theories for the origin of the word umber. One is that it reflects the name of the place where the pigment was first extracted and made into a dye – Umbria in central Italy. The other, more romantic association, has a darker twist. Some believe that umber has it’s etymological origins in the Italian word umbra, meaning shade.


From the murals of Ancient Rome to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages – one particular pigment has been prized throughout history for its vibrancy. It’s painted the faces of the faithful in India and the decorative lacquerware of Chinese emperors.

Before the advent of synthetic dyes, many innocent insects gave their lives to satisfy our lust for beautiful colours. The Kermes Vermiliois one of these unfortunate bugs. Vermiliois is a version of the Latin word for worm; vermis. When squished, the hapless critter becomes the basis of a bright red dye, similar to crimson. This colour was named vermilion, after the worm it was originally made from.

Posted in Etymology