Black Etymology: Studying the Origin of the Word Black

Chalkboard with the word black. Studying concept with stack of books and pens

Color is one of the most important and ever present parts of life. When people talk about the joys they find hiking, camping or at the beach, they’re often thinking about the rich and beautiful colors they’ve seen. Likewise, people in urban settings are often even more passionate about adding color into their world, including the color black, which this post will be focusing on.

People carefully select clothing to emphasize certain colors in hopes of saying something about themselves. We sometimes pick colors to express how we see ourselves. Other times our choice of colors has a more aspirational quality. We might pick clothing or accessories which hints at the personality traits we aspire toward.

The importance of color also shows why it appears in a variety of ways and words within our language. Color is tied to emotion in most languages. People can refer to a color and the listeners will naturally infer an emotional element. For example, English speakers often refer to feeling blue to indicate sadness. In Thai, someone is “going green” when they’re filled with anger.

Learning About the World Through Etymology

Definition of the word etymology in a dictionary

We can see countless examples of how color influences language in a wide variety of different cultures. However, every language also sees the flip side of this phenomenon. Color influences language, but language also influences color. We can learn a lot about history, culture and the artistic spirit by looking into the way language adapts to color perception.

The study of how a word makes its way into a particular language or dialect is known as etymology. Studying etymology helps us in a number of different ways. We often learn a lot about how a particular language operates by examining how it integrates different words. We can also see how different cultures relate to a particular subject as they work it into their language. This is especially true for some of the more fundamental cultural concepts such as color. This can be better understood by examining the etymology of a specific color.

Shedding Some Light on the Color Black and the Meaning of the Word

Candle burning in the dark

The color black is an especially interesting example of color etymology due to the fact that it’s distinct from other colors. Black can be thought of as an absence of color just as much as a color unto itself. Black is what we see when all light and color is removed from something. This may well be one of the reasons why it often has a negative association in most cultures. We associate black with something, namely light and color, being taken from us.

Various cultures have distinct views of particular colors. But some of them are more universal. For example, red tends to be seen as a passionate and vital color through most times and places. This is possibly due to the fact that blood is itself an important universal in human life. We know blood is a part of human vitality and associate it with the color red.

Black is somewhat similar as a color which is universally introduced into human culture. Everyone experiences the color black throughout their lives. It’s what we see when we close our eyes. We see the sky blacken as night falls. And anyone who’s been into a cave can attest to the sheer weight darkness can have in those enclosed spaces.

All of this means that a culture doesn’t need any advanced artistic techniques to understand the color black. Any culture with language should also have a word for the absence of light. As such it shouldn’t be a surprise to see that the word black dates back to our earliest examples of the English language.

An Older Form of English

Medieval scribe writing on paper with feather pen

We first see the word black show up in the earliest form of English. This early english is, quite appropriately, known as old english. Old english dates all the way back to the middle ages. Cædmon’s Hymn is the oldest known example of old english and dates back to around 658 A.D.

Examining this text shows a language which harkens much closer to the english language’s Germanic roots. For example, consider how its old english “weorc Wuldor-Fæder” translates to “the work of the Glory-Father”. It’s not quite as clear in writing. However, people who speak both german and english might see the clues on speaking it aloud. Fæder is quite similar to “vater” in german and “father” in modern english. “Weorc” on the other hand is dissimilar from german origins and closer to “work” in modern english. Old english isn’t quite english as we think of it today. However, it’s quite clearly distinct from its Germanic roots as well. It’s a language which is essentially still in the process of defining itself.

The Words Blæc, Black, Sweart and Schwarz

Classic view of the medieval German town Rothenburg ob der Tauber illuminated in evening twilight

It’s in this realm of old english that we see the origins of the word black. Modern english’s black sounds quite similar to blæc in old english. The “æ” is pronounced in the same manner as the “a” in cat. However, the spelling of blæc differs quite a bit from the modern word. Black and blæc are pronounced in a very similar manner to each other. The meaning of blæc isn’t exactly in line with its soundalike word in modern english.

Blæc refers more to an absolute absence of color. This could mean that everything is dark. But it may also refer to an overabundance of color. This means that blæc could also refer to something which is totally white.

Old english has another word, sweart, which is closer to the modern meaning rather than the sound of black. German speakers will probably notice the similarity to the german word for black, schwarz. So how did the meaning of blæc and sweart mix together to form the modern black?

Uncovering the Blanket of Darkness Over the Word Black

Alone strange man standing in a dark forest at night in the moonlight

Language often evolves through a process of semantic change. This refers to situations where use of a word persists within a culture while its meaning changes. It’s not surprising to see this occur with blæc due to how imprecise the term is. Blæc is essentially a way of stating that color has been removed from an object. A modern eye might look at the term as similar to the concept of a stage being darkened. Or, conversely, of something being bleached of color.

Use of blæc in relation to darkness falling over something eventually became the dominant meaning of the word. This makes a lot of sense when we consider real world situations. We see things enveloped in white far less often than we see darkness take over a setting. When the sun comes up the world isn’t bleached white. But the sun setting often drenches the world in black.

This leads to a situation where old english now has two words, blæc and sweart, which are essentially used to describe the same thing. As old english turned into middle and then early modern English the use of blæc to describe darkness became the norm. This semantic change meant that the word sweart was becoming increasingly redundant as more and more people began to primarily use the word blæc in an analogous way to our modern use of black. Of course linguistic changes happen at a slow pace in cultures with limited mobility and literacy. The gradual evolution of blæc would occur as the language as a whole changed over time. Old english would eventually transition into middle english.

The transition from middle english to early modern english took place in a time when printing allowed for faster and easier linguistic standardization. This was a time when english became more streamlined as changes radiated outward in writing. The now fully redundant sweart fell out of use within the English language during this period as people were now using black in the modern context.

A History of How We All Relate to Colors

Colorful landscape composed of bright paint motion gradients and surreal mountains and clouds symbolizing the imagination

One of the most important things we can take away from this is just how interconnected the world is. We tend to think of immense spans of time as a cultural wall which can’t always be climbed. We think of the cultures, especially ancient cultures, as self contained. But in reality all of humanity tends to share concepts, language and ideas with each other. This is especially true for subjects which deal with the very fundamentals of the human experience.

We’re all moved by emotion when we see colorful scenes. Likewise we’re all familiar with the sense of the night falling as blackness engulfs our world. It makes sense that humanity would all come up with ways to discuss these subjects. And it makes just as much sense that we’d change our language and ideas as we talked about human universals with new people and cultures.

This cultural exchange was considerably slower in the past. It takes time for new words and concepts to essentially travel by foot. But looking at the etymology of the word black shows how various separate cultures and countries share ideas to arrive where we are now in the modern world.