Colours In Old Norse.

Colours in Old Norse. This was very interesting, thanks to Ice Swimmer for this, which came up in the discussion of Lurid, and it’s origin Luridus, meaning pale yellow.  I’m familiar with the association between gold and red, that seems to have been a means of classification in many different cultures. As for blue being used to describe black people, that’s not unique to Old Norse either. I remember reading this post about the awful mistakes people make when trying to translate English into Gaelic. They have a similar use of colour classification having to do with hair, and…

The funny thing here is, the Irish word gorm actually does mean “blue” in most contexts. […] People of African descent, or with similarly dark skin, are described as “blue” in Irish (most likely because dubh (“black”) and dorcha (“dark”) have negative connotations in the language and donn (“brown”) would be understood to refer to hair color).


  1. Nightjar says

    That was very interesting. I was surprised by the yellow/pink association, that’s two colours that feel so different to me I would never have guessed they could be grouped under the same word, but the explanation makes sense. In Portuguese yellow has a dedicated word but pink doesn’t, it’s just “colour of the rose”. Which never made much sense to me, roses come in so many colours, colour of the rose could be almost anything! :D

  2. says

    That took me by surprise as well. I do not associate yellow and pink together. Pink is odd anyway, because it’s a derivative of red, and there are so many shades of it, one word doesn’t come close to describing a universal colour.

  3. Ice Swimmer says

    In modern Swedish blek means pale (often used when talking about someone with a pale skin due to being sick or tired). That goes well with the Old Norse thing of bleikr as a weak warm colour.

    Finnish has a specific name for pink nowadays, pinkki, but I think it’s a fairly recent loan, possibly from English. Pink is even now often called vaaleanpunainen (light red). I came close to screwing up one of the entries in my alphabet series by improperly translating vaaleanpunainen straight to Swedish, which isn’t my mother tongue. Pink is rosa in Swedish, not ljusröd (light red).

  4. rq says

    Interesting! re: lurid, I don’t know if I ever had a specific colour in mind for that, I think I always pictured it as a weird combination of grey and bright colours, all mottled together into nonsense. Definitely not a pretty shade, but light yellow? Never would have put that together.
    In Latvian, blāvs is pale, but with the nuance of ‘faded’, while gaišs is light/pale colour that is naturally so (gaisma is light) . White is balts. Melns is black, tumšs is dark (tumsa is darkness); grey is pelēks, and I really don’t know where that comes from (incidentally, a mouse is a pele). Blue is zils. But, that zils can mean anything from royal deep blue to sky blue to blue-grey to to blue-green shades, as well as lavender and lilac tones, right down to purples (most purple flowers are known as ‘blue’, and all words for purple are loanwords -- lillā, violets, purpurs (maroon-purple)). The words for red/reddish, sarkans and sārts, could indicate shades of rusty brown, bright orange, the usual reds, a string of pinks, basically anything with a red tone in it; words for orange and pink and brown -- oranžs and rozā and brūns -- are clear loanwords, as well.
    I love how colour is such a universal yet complicated concept in pretty much all languages, and trying to colour-match from one language to the next is nearly impossible.

  5. rq says

    blek means pale

    Also this is very interesting, in the context of ‘black’ in English.

  6. says

    In Latvian, blāvs is pale,

    German “blass”, with the same conotation

    Also this is very interesting, in the context of ‘black’ in English.

    I’d say the English equivalent is bleak

    German took “pink” for the raspberry shade and kept “rosa” for the light colour. Of the purples there are many. AfaIk, “purple” is only a recent concept in western languages, as you can see in English folk songs/poems where violets and lavender are both described as “blue”.
    Colour names fascinate me to no end, because whenh you work with any kind of thread they’ll drive you up the wall. I once completely fucked up something because the colour chart said “periwinkle”. Only the name of the plant is “Immergrün” (always green) in German so I used a green shade…

  7. rq says

    I’d say the English equivalent is bleak

    You’re right, I bow to your linguistic expertise. But my ear insists on hearing a relationship. (I know, that’s bad etymology all the way down.)

  8. Nightjar says

    Purple is indeed an interesting case. In Portuguese the most commonly used word for purple is roxo, a cognate of the Spanish rojo. In old Portuguese texts and poems the word roxo was used for things that are clearly red, suggesting it used to have the same meaning as rojo, but nowadays it only means purple. Red is vermelho. We also have the words púrpura (mostly used for shiny purple things) and lilás (for pale purple). Blue is azul and was a lovely Arabic acquisition.

  9. Ice Swimmer says

    Blek is pronounced with a long e (and it isn’t an English e).

    In Finnish, basic colours are sininen, punainen, keltainen, vihreä, ruskea, musta, valkoinen and harmaa, that is, blue, red, yellow, green, brown, black, white and gray. The words for orange, violet and so are also clearly loan words, just like in Latvian.

    An example on how much the names of colours can vary between related languages, is green in Finnish and Estonian, respectively vihreä and roheline.

  10. Nightjar says


    Which I suppose has nothing to do with the latin vireo / viridis, behind the Portuguese/Spanish verde?

  11. Ice Swimmer says

    According to the website of the Institute for the Languages of Finland (which is as official as it gets) vihreä is an old Aryan loan word. An old reconstructed form is wis̆a. Wis̆a (or something similar to it) means poison or gall in Avestan and Pahlavi. The Finnish word for hate, viha shares the etymology and also the Permic* languages, distantly related to Finnish have loaned the word. In Komi the word means envy and in Udmurt hate and anger. I’m not sure how the modern forms of the word look in Komi and Udmurt.
    * = No, they don’t stem from the Permian geological period. They are spoken in foothills of the Ural Mountains in Russia.

  12. lumipuna says

    Nightjar -- No idea, sounds plausible that it comes from Latin.

    I read somewhere that the Old Norse word for “red” is the loan origin of Finnish rauta, “iron”. Maybe it’s a reference to red rust, or maybe something more obscure?

    A famous myth passage in the Kalevala recounts how iron was “born” as milk expressed by three heavenly maidens, who represent “air” as the most primeval element. The milk/molten iron rained down on earth in three colors: white for steel, black for wrought iron and red for cast iron.

  13. Ice Swimmer says

    lumipuna @ 12

    According to Wiktionary, hematite (iron ore) was rauði in Old Norse, but the word could also have a Balto-Slavic ethymology, rūda is ore in Latvian (right, rq?).

  14. Nightjar says

    means poison or gall

    Gall green? Makes sense, but that’s a rather unpleasant source of green! Latin vireo supposedly means something like “to sprout”, so it’s plant green.

    Funnily enough, while looking up the etymology of some colour names I discovered that the Portuguese amarelo originates from the Latin amarus meaning bitter or sour. The association between yellow and sour is, according to several sources, thought to originate precisely from gall! If that’s true I just find it fascinating that bile was separately used to name two colours, green and yellow.

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