Word Connections: Black & White

The words “black” and “white” represent the two most fundamental colors — and the two most extreme, being the darkest and lightest colors. These two colors also have many cultural associations, although these associations can vary from culture to culture. In the western world we often associate black with evil, and white with goodness. In English we will say that someone has a “black mark on his record”, or that someone is “waiting for a white knight”. If we say that someone “sees the world in black and white”, then the implication is that the person oversimplifies the complexities of the world. But we also say “it’s all there in black and white”, suggesting that the meaning of a text is quite clear.

The word “black” is from the Old English blaec, which meant black or dark, but could also be used to mean “ink”. Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) was a Germanic language, very similar to the other Germanic languages spoken at the time. Thus we can say that the word “black” is of Germanic origin. Old English also had a second word for black — sweart. In general, the word blaec was used for intense black colors, and sweart was used for dull black colors. The same was true in Old High German, where blach meant a dark or shiny black, and swart meant a dull black.

In modern English, blaec has won out over sweart. “Black” has become our preferred word for the darkest possible color. But the word “swarthy”– which now means to have dark skin, either naturally dark or darkened by the sun — still shows up sometimes, especially in literature.

In the other Germanic and Scandinavian languages, the battle between the two words for black went the other way. The ultimate winner in these languages was the word related to our word “swarthy”, rather than the word related to our “black”. Thus the modern Swedish word for black is svart. The modern Dutch word for black is zwart. And the modern German word for black is schwarz.

Just as “Black” can be a surname in English, “Schwarz” can be a surname in German. Furthermore, “Schwarz” can be combined with other German words to make longer surnames. For example, the surname “Schwarzkopf” literally means “black head”.

The Spanish word for black is negro (pronounced “NAY-grow”), derived from the Latin word niger. For several decades in the 20th century, the word “Negro” was the preferred term — the most polite term — to refer to “black” people in the United States. But politically sensitive terms often pick up cultural baggage, and after a time they get replaced by fresh terms with less baggage. And so today the term “Negro” is no longer acceptable, replaced in the U.S. by the term “African-American”.

The French word for “black” is noir. In English, we use the French term film noir to refer to a particular style of filmmaking, often used for detective or crime films in the 1940s and 1950s. These films tended to be “dark” in both a literal sense and a figurative sense. We also use the French term bête noire, which literally means “black beast”, to mean something that is especially disliked. For example, you could say “John’s bête noire is any kind of food that is cooked with cumin.”

Several botanical names are derived from Latin word niger. For example, the plant that produces black pepper is Piper nigrum. And the black nightshade is Solanum nigrum. However, it appears that the Niger River in Africa got its name from a completely different origin, most likely from one of the North African languages. The countries Niger and Nigeria are both named for the Niger River, which passes through them.

The ancient Greek word for black was mélanos, from which several English words are derived. For example, “melanin” is the black pigment found in dark hair and dark skin. This pigment also provides the black color to moles on the skin. “Melanoma” is a deadly type of skin cancer that often begins in a skin mole. “Melanesia” is an archipelago of Pacific islands inhabited by dark-skinned people, and the inhabitants of these islands are called “Melanesians”. (The other two major Pacific archipelagos are called Polynesia, meaning “many islands”, and Micronesia, meaning “tiny islands”.)

A less obvious connection to “black” is the word “melancholy”, which is a condition of sadness or low spirits. The word literally means “black bile”, from the Greek melancholíā. At one time, it was believed that the body contained four fluids, or “humors”. These fluids were blood, phlegm, bile (also called yellow bile), and black bile. The balance between these four fluids was believed to be responsible for a person’s mood or personality. If someone was in “bad humor” then it was believed that the person’s fluids were out of balance. If a person was “sanguine”, then blood was predominating. If the person was “phlegmatic”, then phlegm was predominating. If the person was “choleric” or “bilious”, then bile was predominating. And if the person was “melancholy”, then black bile was predominating.

The word “white” is from the Old English hwīt. The modern Norwegian word is hvit, nearly identical to the Old English. The modern Dutch word — wit — is also quite similar. In English there is a striking similarity between the words “white” and “wheat” — the latter of which is derived from the Old English hwǣte. The words “white” and “wheat” are in fact related, because “wheat” is derived from a proto-Germanic word that literally meant “that which is white”.

The German word for “white” is weiss. Like Schwarz, Weiss can be a surname. And like Schwarz, Weiss can be combined with another word to make a longer surname. For example, the name Weissmann literally means “white man”. In Germany, if you find a bin labeled weissglas (“white glass”), then that is where you can recycle your clear glass bottles. But you need to put your brown bottles in the bin labeled braunglas (“brown glass”), and you need to put your green bottles in the bin labeled grünglas (“green glass”) or buntglas (“colored glass”).

The French word for white is blanc (masculine) or blanche (feminine). In English, if you say “I saw her blanch”, then you are saying that the color drained from her face. You “blanch” almonds by soaking off the skins in boiling water, which turns the almonds white. The word “blanch” has now come to mean dipping any kind of vegetable in boiling water — even if the result is to turn the vegetable bright green instead of white.

The English word “blank” comes from the old French blanc, so if you leave a “blank” on a page, then you are literally leaving a white space. The English word “blanket” comes from the Old French blankete, which in turn comes from the Old French blanc. In Middle English, the word “blanket” referred to undyed woolen cloth, which was typically white.

The Old French word blanc traces back to the Vulgar Latin blancus, meaning “white”, but the word does not trace back to Classical Latin. In other words, the common people in many parts of the Roman Empire used the word blancus, but the educated people in Rome used a different word — albus — to mean white. In fact, the Latin word blancus comes from the early Germanic word blank, which meant “brilliant”. In Old High German, the word for brilliant had evolved to blanch, not much different from the Old High German word blach, which meant a shiny black.

In addition to French, the other western Romance languages also get their words for “white” from the Vulgar Latin blancus. The Spanish word for white is blanco, while the Italian word is bianco, and the Portuguese word is branco. This triplet of words illustrates two common patterns. In many Latin words that begin with “bl”, “pl”, or “fl”, the Italian word now substitutes “i” for “l”. Thus Italian has piano (compared with the Spanish plano), fiore (Spanish flor), and bianco (Spanish blanco). Likewise, in many Latin words that begin with “bl”, “pl”, or “fl”, the Portuguese word now substitutes “r” for the “l” — such as branco, compared to the Spanish blanco.

In contrast to the western Romance languages, the Romanian word for white — alb — derives from albus rather than blancus.

Although the Classical Latin word albus did not become a word of the common people in western Europe, the word did manage to influence the English language. The word “albino” means a person or animal that lacks pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes — and therefore has white skin or fur and pink eyes. The word “albumen” signifies the white of an egg, and the word “albumin” refers to the types of proteins found in egg whites. The word “albedo” refers to the degree of reflectivity of a planet or other celestial body. Thus, Venus has a high albedo, because the white clouds that envelope the planet reflect a relatively high percentage of the incoming light. And the word “alba” shows up in the botanical name for several plants that have white flowers. For example, the botanical name for the White Fairy Lantern is Calochortus alba. Likewise, the Barn Owl, which has a white face and white breast, has the scientific name Tyto alba.

The Classical Greek word for white was leucos — another ancient word that has left an imprint on English. The word “leucocyte” is the formal word for a white blood cell. “Leukemia” is a type of cancer of the blood, characterized by an excess of leucocytes in the blood. The term “leucoderma” refers to white patches on the skin where pigments failed to appear. And a “leucoplast” is a colorless organelle within a plant cell that is specialized for storing starches, fats, or proteins. Thus a potato plant stores starches in the leucoplasts within the cells of the underground tuber, resulting in what we call a potato. In botany, many Latin names for plants incorporate “leuco”, such as the genera Leucodendron, Leucospermum, and Leucopogon.

And now you have seen, in black and white, some of many connections in the English language to the words “black” and “white” in other European languages. Stay tuned for future editions of the “Word Connections” series!

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