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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Double Rainbow: What Does it Mean?

A huge thanks to awesome blogger and fellow Gleek who rescued this post and e-mailed it to meCheck out her out at
In All in a Word, Vivian Cook tells me that the Welsh language only has two color names - black and white. Whenever I hear factoids like this, I wonder what the catch is. I'm guessing the entire country isn't color blind, and while I realize it can be dreary over there, one would assume they still need to, you know, be able to tell whether a banana's ripe or not.

So what gives? Do they borrow words from other languages? Speak of color only in comparison - the color of bananas or the sky or haggis? Maybe they do have color words, but they just talk too fast for anybody to catch them. 
Are you aware there's a condition called synesthesia, in which people's brains inexplicably and arbitrarily associate sensory experiences with concepts or ideas. So the number one is a yellow square and the number five is a red circle. The colors aren't universal or anything (although it would be really cool if they were); everybody gets their own shapes and colors. I saw a documentary about a synesthete who had a distinct shape and color for like, one to one thousand or something absurd like that. Wild. 
So let me lay some Roy G. Biv on you, courtesy of Online Etymology Dictionary.

  • Red: Goes all the way back to Indo European, common ancestor of languages as diverse as Latin, German, Sanskrit, and English.
  • Orange: Color came first, before the fruit. Related to the Sanskrit narangah which is remarkably close to the Spanish naranjah. Which is pretty damn cool.
  • Yellow: From the Indo-European ghel. Perhaps came to be associated with cowardice as a result of the belief that humors like yellow phlegm controlled temperament. That's not according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, just a guess.
  • Green: From Indo-European base ghre. Green as the color of envy goes back to at least Shakespeare. Green as a type of political party or movement shows up in 1978 - same time I showed up! 
  • Blue: Words similar to blue have been used to describe every shade from black to yellow, according to Etymology Online. The Japanese have two blues, ao and mizuiro, according to All in a Word, and both native speakers of Japanese AND non-native speakers who become fluent in Japanese see the two as very distinct colors and not, in fact, as two shades of the color blue.
  • Indigo: Named after India. Perhaps because India is purple? According to All in a Wordpurple is not a universal color term, meaning it's not universally recognized as a color. Perhaps speakers of other languages see what we consider purple as just a shade of blue. The language you speak determines what colors you see. Just think about that for a minute. Okay, minute's up.
  • Violet: First came the flower, then the color. Etymologically related to iodine, which gets its name for the color of the vapors given off by heated iodine crystals.
And because I just can't get enough of the Songify folks: 


Things to Do said...

Thanks for the shout out and glad it worked! OK, 'the whole language you speak will influence the colors you see' has blown my mind.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

I was fascinated to learn that no color was mentioned in the Bible until after Noah's flood, when the rainbow appeared after the rain. I began to wonder if, as I'd read somewhere, earth was surrounded by clouds the way Venus is now. For the sake of this image, say Noah's flood really happened, possibly because the massive clouds were seeded (maybe by volcanoes?) and we had massive amounts of rain, until the clouds were gone. For the first time in human memory, the sun could be seen, along with a rainbow.

In 1977 or 1978, I saw a double rainbow. The only camera I had with me was filled with black-and-white film for the in-house publication I edited, so (crazy me) I parked my car and took a BW picture of that double rainbow. It worked! When the film was developed, I could see both rainbows, though they were two shades of gray. I was astonished, but joyful, about my double-gray rainbow.

Anonymous said...

Love me some orange. Sanskrit, eh? Wicked.