Colorful Words from the Greek

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Several Greek color words have enriched the English vocabulary.

We get the combining form melano from the Greek word meaning dark or black.

melancholy: a gloomy mental state; according to ancient physiology, a humor called “black bile” was secreted by the kidneys and the spleen, and was thought to cause melancholia.

melanoma: a skin tumor containing a dark pigment.

melanin: any dark brown or black pigments of animal or plant structures, for example, hair, or the surface of a raw potato when exposed to air.

The element leuk in certain medical terms is from the Greek word for white.

leukemia: a chronic disease characterized by an abnormal increase in the number of white blood cells.

leukocyte: a white blood cell.

The Greek word for red gives us the combining form erythro, which is used in the specialized terminology of medicine, chemistry, and mineralogy.

erythrophyll: the red coloring matter of leaves in autumn.

erythroretin: a resinous constituent of rhubarb root.

erythroscope: an optical contrivance, by which the green of foliage is caused to appear red, while all other green objects retain their natural color.

erythrocyte: a red blood corpuscle.

Cyan is the Greek word for dark blue, but what artists call “cyan blue” is a color midway between green and blue.

cyanide: an extremely poisonous crystalline solid. It got its name because it was first obtained by heating the dye pigment known as Prussian blue.

cyanin: the blue coloring matter of certain flowers (e.g., violets and cornflowers).

cyanosis: blueness of the skin owing to the circulation of imperfectly oxygenated blood.

The Greek word from which we get the combining form chlor described a pale green.

chloroform: volatile liquid used as an anesthetic. Chloroform is colorless; it got its name as the result of combining the words chlorine and formic, as in formic acid.

chlorophyll: the coloring matter of the leaves and other green parts of plants.

chlorine: a yellowish-green heavy gas.

Finally, the Greek word for color gives us the combining form chromo, which creates nouns and adjectives that denote colored objects, coloring processes, and coloring agents:

chromatic: full of color.

polychrome: art executed in many colors.

chromium: a metallic element remarkable for the brilliant colors–red, yellow, or green–of its compounds.

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16 thoughts on “Colorful Words from the Greek”

  1. “The Greek word for red gives us the combining form erythro”–
    Erythromycin is a well-known antibiotic, and I believe that it was the first of the mycin antibiotics to reach wide use in medical care.
    When my only sister was quite young, it was found that she was allegic to all of the penicillin antibiotics. Hence the doctors gave her erythromycin instead. Next, she became allergic to that one, too. I am lucky that I am not allegic to ANY antibiotics, but my sister the doctor is allergic to most of them!
    She is very careful about all antibiotics.

  2. Melanie: a name for women, such as Scarlet O’Hara’s cousin Melanie in GONE WITH THE WIND, played by Olivia de Havilland.

    Sodium cyanide and potassium cyanide are solids at room temperature, but hydrogen cyanide is a poisonous gas. Some was used in combat by the German Empire during World War I, but hydrogen cyanide is better known for its use in executions, formerly, in some of the states of the United States.
    Cyanide compounds are also used in the purification of gold ores because of the affinity of the cyan radical for gold. All of this has to be done with extreme care in metallurgy because the byproducts, such as hydrogen cyanide, are very poisonous.

  3. Melatonin is an important hormone that is produced by the brain, pituitary gland, and pineal gland, and it is important in the sleep-wakefulness cycles of human beings, apes, and other mammals. Some people take pills of melatonin in an effort to overcome insomnia and to adjust their cicadian rhythms.

  4. Chlorine is not just a yellowish-green heavy gas. It is a chemical element, element number 17 on the Periodic Table because each of the chlorine nuclei contains 17 protons.
    The importance of the chemical elements cannot be underestimated, especially since there is a small, finite number of them. (For example, uranium is element 92 and plutonium is element 94. As the atomic numbers increase beyond this, the elements become very unstable and very radioactive.)

    The Greek prefix “klor” actually means “pale green”. Please see the Wikipedia article above for its spelling in Greek letters.

    The color of gaseous chlorine does NOT carry on to its chemical compounds, such as sodium chloride, potassium chloride, calcium chloride, which are colorless, and its compounds in organic chemistry. These compounds are essential in all forms of life, from human beings down to bacteria — even though gaseous chloride is very poisionous.

    In a noteworthy episode of STAR TREK, “Man Trap”, there is an alien being that “sucks” all of the salts out of people, thus killing them immediately. The alien has a hunger for salt for its own existance. A “salt” is just about any chemical compound with “chloride” in its name, such as sodium chloride, magnesium chloride, and ferrous chloride.

    Analog color TV is still used in many parts of the world, including most of Africa, Asia, Central America, South America, and the island countries and territories of the world. It is probably still in use in northern Canada, too, in the area of sparse populations.

    In analog color TV, besides the audio signal, there are two video signals called the luminance signal and the chrominance signal, separated in frequency. The luminance signal conveys the brightness or darkness of the dots on the screen. Black and white TV sets use this signal and ignore the chrominance signal. The chrominance signal carries the color information for each dot. A color TV set uses both the luminance signal and the chrominance signal to produce the color picture.

    In the case of a black and white broadcast, the chrominance signal is zero, and a color TV set presents a black and white picture. Sometimes, the chrominance signal is just called the “chroma” signal.

  6. A Greek word for colorful came into English as “iris”, and the word “iris” was given to a family of plants that produce flowers in a wide variety of colors.

    Also from “iris”. There is a chemical element, a metal, that was given the name “iridium” because of the wide variety of colors that its compounds have while in solutions.
    Iridium is a member of the family of chemical elements that are valuable, dense, and interestingly, inert to a wide variety of elements. The other five elements are platinum, palladium, osmium, rhodium, and ruthenium, and these are called the “platinum group” of elements, since platinum was the first of these to be discovered.
    The platinum group is a subset of the “nobel metals”. See

    All of these metals are very resistant to attack by acids, and some of them even resist aqua regia (a blend of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid). Tantalum and niobium are also very resistant to acids, but for some reason they are not included.

    Alloys of iridium and osmium are very dense, they have very high melting points, and they are very resistant to chemical attack.

  7. “monochromatic” = “one color”
    “bichromatic” = “two colors”
    “polychromatic” = “many colors”
    In the world of photography, films, and TV, “monochromatic” is another word for “black and white”

  8. The Greek prefix “klor” actually means “pale green”.

    The article said, “The Greek word from which we get the combining form chlor described a pale green.”

    The color of gaseous chlorine does NOT carry on to its chemical compounds…

    The article said, “Chloroform is colorless…”

    The importance of the chemical elements cannot be underestimated…

    Their importance cannot be OVERestimated. It shouldn’t be underestimated.

  9. Venqax, you are at it again – silliness:

    “The importance of the chemical elements cannot be underestimated…”
    “Their importance cannot be OVERestimated. It shouldn’t be underestimated.”

    In many contexts, the phrase “cannot be” means “should not be”. “Surely, you cannot be thinking of running naked across the tennis courts of Wimbledon.”
    “Surely, you cannot be making rude remarks about John F. Kennedy,” but as we have seen, Venqax has already done that.
    “You cannot be thinking of eating angle worms from breakfast!”
    Well, maybe you are, but you should not do that.

  10. Some chemical elements will impart a color in some compounds, but not in others.
    Also, there are elements – such as iridium – that will give one color in one compound, but a different color in other compounds.
    The point to be made here is that chlorine does not impart a green, pale green, or yellowish green to ANY of its compounds.
    Take, for example, hydrochloric acid, which is the compound HCl dissolved in water. That acid is colorless.
    The explanation involves quantum mechanics, I know.

  11. Correction: angle worms for breakfast.

    I once read a story about a boy who wanted angle worms with cream sauce for breakfast, so one day when he was sick in bed, his brother and sister dug up some angle worms, and his mother cooked him some angle worms with cream sauce.

    His reaction to that: YUCK – YUCK – YUCK !

  12. Sir Humphrey Davy named chlorine from Ancient Greek: χλωρóς = khlôros = “pale green”.
    In going from ancient Greek to other languages, the “k” is a necessary step because an equivalent of “c” does not exist in Greek.
    Of course, English speakers and German speakers expressed “khl” as “chl” because we don’t like the “kh” combination. There are similar words in German, such as “Chemie” = “chemistry”.

  13. DAW: Just admit you made the very common mistake of saying underestimate when you meant overestimate. “Cannot be overestimated” is a common phrase meaning something is exceedingly important. People often mess it up and say “cannot be underestimated” when that is what they mean…No big deal.

    In many contexts, the phrase “cannot be” means “should not be”.

  14. Venqax: you do not understand that the word “underestimated” includes underestimating all the way down to ZERO. In other words, that means that one will totally ignore something that is really important.

    You cannot and should not do that with something as important as the chemical elements.

    Once again, underestimating something includes IGNORING it completely.
    I am sorry that you have never learned to reason things all the way to their scientific and mathematical extremes.
    “That cannot be underestimated” is a perfectly reasonable statement in English, and it is NOT someone’s mistake.

  15. Catching up on inbox items I read this entry today.

    I found it odd that the 5 Greek colors that you mentioned are all different in modern Greek than they were in ancient times.

    Nowadays these colors are as follows:

    black = mavro
    white = aspro
    red = kokkino
    blue = ble
    green = prasino

    When I lived in Greece I often thought that the language had been diluted by neglecting the ancient terms and importing color words from other languages.

    Take these colors, for example,
    blue = ble (i.e., bleu)
    brown = kafe (i.e., coffee)
    pink = roz (i.e., rose)
    orange = portokali (i.e., Portuguese)
    purple = mov (i.e., mauve)
    yellow = kitrino (i.e., citron, citrus)

    But this is the way that languages evolve, isn’t it?

  16. In regards to Andy Knoedler’s comment, “bortoqali” (or “bortoqani”) is the word for “orange” in Arabic as well. Very interesting!

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