Origin of the Word Black

Black and Gray SquaresFrom sophisticated elegance to evil incarnate, few colors conjure up such strong images as black.

The origin of the word black stretch back to a group of tribes known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans. According to etymologists, these ancient groups likely used the rather un-elegant sounding word bhleg- to mean burn or gleam.

As cultures evolved, bhleg- evolved as well. While it retained its original meaning, the word became phlegein in Greek and flagrare in Latin. However, the word started to take the road to its modern form through the English mother tongue, Proto-Germanic. These tribes, who inhabited Europe during the first millennium BCE, used the term blak-.

Old English speakers, the Anglo-Saxons, transformed the word into blaec and began to associate it directly with the color. At the same time, they were also using the word blac to mean white or bright. The words were so similar that translators are sometimes left scratching their heads as they try to determine whether the writer was describing something that was black or white.

Black was also used as a verb. For example, one 16th century text reads, “The paper will be blacked by smoke.” Around this time, the English people began to use it as a noun to describe professional mourners or a person with dark skin.

Discover more about the origins of the words for colors

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