Blue, the Story of a Word

Surrounded by their blue seas and under their amazing blue sky, the Greeks, inventors of a great array of notions, fundamental to our contemporary way of thinking, lacked the very word that best describes their landscapes: blue. Til Modern times, they only named the color of the sea – wine-dark.


Almost no one would name the color blue until modern times. Did the word simply came out of the blue? There is no exact answer but there are, though, some interesting details worth mentioning, here.

In ancient times, Homer famously described the sea as being wine-dark. Not deep-blue, neither black nor green, but wine-dark:

And jealous now of me, you gods, because I befriend a man, one I saved as he straddled the keel alone, when Zeus had blasted and shattered his swift ship with a bright lightning bolt, out on the wine-dark sea.
The Odyssey, Book V

The ancient Greeks classified colors by whether they were light or dark, rather than by their hue, so that the word for dark blue, kyaneos, could also mean dark green, violet, black or brown; and that for light blue, glaukos, could also mean light green, grey, or yellow.

When being surrounded by this landscape, the color connections above seem even more odd. This is the beautiful island of Paros.

In the 1850s, blue was already an established word. Its nuances as well. By then, Mr. William Gladstone, a scholar who later became the prime minister of Great Britain, avid reader of Homer, started to notice that the wine-dark reference to the blue sea wasn’t the only strange color description of the Greek author: he would take entire pages to describe intricate details of clothing, armor, or facial features, still his references to colors would be quite strange: iron and sheep are pictured as violet, the sky is bronze while honey – is green. So Gladstone decided to turn his observation into statistics and to count the color references in the book.

While black is mentioned almost 200 times and white about 100, other colors are rare. Red is mentioned fewer than 15 times, and yellow and green fewer than 10. Gladstone started looking at other ancient Greek texts and noticed the same thing – there was never anything described as blue.

The word simply didn’t exist.

20150531_180030Naxos, a stripe of green shades withwhite accents, between the sea and the sky.

Gladstone thought this might be something especially related to the Greek universe but philologist Lazarus Geiger followed up on his work and noticed this was true across cultures. He studied Icelandic sagas, the Quran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible. On Hindu Vedic hymns, he wrote:

These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again … but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs … and that is that the sky is blue. 

There was no blue, not in the way that we know the color – it wasn’t distinguished from green or darker shades. Geiger looked to see when blue started to appear in languages and found an odd pattern all over the world.


The Kolona Beach, in Kythnos island, is a nice stripe of sand that divides the sea into two, when at low tide.

Colors & Language

Every language had, first, a word for black and for white – or dark and light.

The next word for a color – in every language studied around the world – was red, the red of blood and wine.

After red, historically, yellow and green appear. Blue is the last, except for the the Egyptians, the only ancient culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.

Blue became the color of constancy, since Chaucer at least, but apparently for no deeper reason than the rhyme in true blue (c. 1500).

From early times, blue was the distinctive color of the dress of servants, which may be the reason why police uniforms are blue, a tradition Farmer dates to Elizabethan times.

The flower name blue bell is recorded by 1570s. The blue whale was attested in 1851 and so called for its color. Blue streak, of something resembling a bolt of lightning (for quickness, intensity, etc.) is from the 1830s, U.S. slang. Many Indo-European languages seem to have had a word to describe the color of the sea, encompassing blue and green and gray, such as Old English hæwen blue, gray, related to har; Serbo-Croatian sinji gray-blue, sea-green; Lithuanian šyvas; Russian sivyj gray. In Romanian, for instance, albastru comes from the Latin albus, white, and it is supposed to have initially designated the sky with white clouds, then extended for the blue clear sky (that can also be azur, from the French azure).


Still, the absence of the proper word for the color didn’t stop the Greeks from enjoying the spectacular views their islands offer towards the dark blue sea around.  The town of Oia, in Santorini, for instance, is maybe one of the most photographed places around Greece, as the view is indeed unique. The island goes pretty abrupt into the sea and Oia is right on the top of it, so the only choice of going into the city, when coming from the sea, is to take some 300 stairs up.

Still, since having entered the common use, blue developed a wide imagery:

Few words enter more largely into the composition of slang, and colloquialisms bordering on slang, than does the word BLUE. Expressive alike of the utmost contempt, as of all that men hold dearest and love best, its manifold combinations, in ever varying shades of meaning, greet the philologist at every turn.
John S. Farmer, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present

Colors & Mind Patterns

Nassim Nicholas Taleb takes the issue of the word blue as an example for thinking and acting beyond appearances, thus beyond the language barrier or even the linguistic relativism, in general:

We know more than we think we do, a lot more than we can articulate.

If our formal systems of thought, and in fact we don’t have a name for antifragility, and fight the concept whenever we use our brains, it does not mean that our actions neglect it.

Our perceptions and intuitions, as expressed in deeds, can be superior to what we know and tabulate, discuss in words, and teach in a classroom.

In Through the Language Glass, the linguist Guy Deutscher reports that many primitive populations, without being color-blind, have verbal designations for only two or three colors.

But when given a simple test, they can successfully match strings to their corresponding color. They are capable of detecting the differences between the various nuances of the rainbow, but they do not express these in their vocabularies. These populations are culturally, though not biologically, color blind, Taleb says in his Antifragile book (The Necessity of Naming chapter).

The houses by the sea from Little Venice of Mykonos and a church dome from Ios are two of the iconic images of Greek islands vernacular architecture – most of it, obviously, in white and blue. Then, by the time of their construction, blue was already a word, even though painting the houses in shades of blue was a much older tradition.

Little Venice dates back to 16th century, when merchants and sailors needed quick access to unload goods from the sailing ships. As for the Ios church, the church of the Assumption of the Virgin, it was built in 1797 and its shapes and colors reflect the vernacular architecture of Cyclades.


The subject is extremely vast. Here are just a few other links for the blue topic, besides the already mentioned sources of Antifragile and Through the Language Glass:

The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World

Radiolab – Colors

NY Times – Blue Through the Centuries: Sacred and Sought After

The Guardian – A History of Colors

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