Colorful Words from Latin

By Maeve Maddox

Among the many Latin words that inform the English vocabulary are several that derive from Roman words for colors.

1. White
Latin albus gives us:

alb (noun): a white vestment reaching the feet and enveloping the entire body, worn by clergy, servers, and others taking part in church services.

album (noun): a bound or loose-leaf book usually with mostly blank pages. The Romans also had the word album: a blank tablet on which the Pontifex Maximus registered the principal events of the year. The Germans were the first to adopt the word album to refer to an autograph book or scrapbook to keep souvenirs in. Youngsters used to digital music albums may not know that the original “record albums” resembled books with pages. (Do I need to define that other strange concept, “book with pages”?)

albumin (noun): a member of a class of simple globular proteins that are soluble in water. Albumin (also albumen) means “egg white.”

2. Yellow
Latin aureus denoted a golden yellow; croceus was a saffron yellow. These colors give us:

crocus (noun): a small spring flower grown from a bulb. Crocuses come in yellow, purple, and white; the flower takes its name from the yellow ones.

aureole (noun): the gold disc that surrounds the head of a saint in a painting. By extension, an aureole can be any kind of radiating light surrounding something. In astronomy, the light that peeks out at the edges of the sun during an eclipse is an aureole.

3. Green
The word for green, viridis, gives us:

verdigris (noun): a green or greenish blue poisonous pigment obtained by the action of acetic acid on copper and used chiefly in antifouling paints and formerly in medicine.

verdant (adjective): green with growing plants. Lush lawns are often referred to as verdant.

4. Black
Two words for black, niger, “black or very dark brown” and coracinus, “raven black,” give us:

Negro (noun): A member of a dark-skinned group of peoples originally native to sub-Saharan Africa.

negroid (adjective): of, resembling, or related to the Negro race.

corbin (noun): obsolete word for a raven.

corbie (noun): A word for raven or crow in Scots dialect. You may know the word from having read the ballad “The Twa Corbies” in which two carrion crows discuss dining on a fallen knight.

corbel (noun): a structural piece of stone, wood or metal jutting from a wall to carry weight. It’s a kind of bracket. Its relation to the Latin word for black is tenuous. Corbel from Latin corbellus, which is a diminutive for corvus, “raven.” The architectural feature gets its name from the “beak-like appearance of the structure.”

What about red? Latin had so many words for red, and English has so many words derived from them, that I shall save red for a post of its own.

Related posts:
Colorful words from the Greek
Take Care with ‘Album’

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6 Responses to “Colorful Words from Latin”

  • Greg

    Does the Latin albus also give us albino?

  • Maeve

    Greg,
    Yes, by way of Portuguese.

  • thebluebird11

    Hmmm…JK Rowling often, if not always, attached some significance to the names of her Harry Potter characters. Albus Dumbledore?

  • ApK

    My son, who’s fifth grade teacher has got him fascinated with Latin roots, will love this this post. I had never realized where “album” came from but it seems obvious now that you mention it.
    Did record albums really get the name because of the book-like packaging of LPs? I always assumed they got it by extension, being collections of songs where photo albums where collections of pictures, &c.

    Hey, does this mean the Beatles “white album” is redundant?

  • Lisa

    (Do I need to define that other strange concept, “book with pages”?)

    Lol, good one, Maeve! 🙂 I wonder if twenty or thirty years from now kids will be going, “What’s a computer?” lol

  • venqax

    Given literacy trends, in 20 or 30 years they may be called computators.

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