What a strange word “yellow” seems to be. While most of our words for basic colours are very similar to the German words, such as blue, green and red for blau, grün and rot, at first glance yellow and gelb don’t seem to be related. But they are – about which I’ll say more later.
For now I will enthuse about this glorious colour of spring. Its hues are all around…
People are often asked “what is your favourite colour?” but there is no simple answer. Favourite colour to look at? To wear? To paint on your walls? For your car? I certainly love to look at yellow, and one of our rooms has primrose yellow walls, but I absolutely cannot wear yellow as it makes my skin look sallow. I cringe when I remember wearing a skimpy yellow mini-dress to a disco when I was a teenager.
But it does seem to be a fashionable shade at the moment, judging by a couple of popular movies…
I have been noticing yellow clothes on TV, too. Here’s Sophie Rayworth, a BBC newsreader, who wore bright chrome yellow when she pursued her ancestry in the Who Do You Think You Are? series.
Here is an interesting story from a few years ago, featuring a cape made from spider silk – and that gold is the natural colour…
My view of “yellow” is quite limited and I don’t count mustard shades. My favourites are primrose, buttercup and chrome yellow, which I remember as a painting pigment, a cool, bright yellow. It’s also called lemon yellow, king’s yellow, Leipzig yellow, Paris yellow, Vienna yellow or Cologne yellow (see more here).
I consider Mahonia (barberry) flowers to be chrome yellow, although this image has a hint of greenness…
Although my view of yellow is limited, Ingrid Sundberg once compiled a Color Thesaurus. These are her yellows…
But back to the etymology of yellow. If we go way back to Neolithic times, roughly around 3,500 years BCE, our ancestors in the area north of the Caspian Sea and Black Sea are believed to have spoken a language that has been reconstructed as Proto-Indian-European (PIE). And most of our modern European languages descended from this in various roundabout ways.
The relevant PIE root word here seems to be ghel, meaning “to shine” and other related modern words are gold, gild, glitter, gleam and glow – even glass and glad.
Its route to the English word yellow seems to be ghelHwos (PIE) – gelwaz (Proto-Germanic) – geolu, geolwe (Old English). But that g at the beginning still needed some work. A sound change happened between Old English and Modern English, through something called palatalisation. Try it for yourself! If you say “ga” then “ya” you can feel your tongue moving up to touch the roof of your mouth (the palate) for the “ya”.
This change has happened a lot – compare these German/English words: Tag/day, Garn/yarn, Weg/way, Nagel/nail and these Old English/Modern English words: gear/year geldan/yield, graeg/grey.
The English word is related to other Germanic words for yellow: yella (Scots), jeel (East Frisian), giel (West Frisian), geel (Dutch), gul (Swedish and Norwegian).
The PIE root word ghlo, a variant of ghel took the “bright” meaning to the colour green as well as yellow, perhaps because of the bright shoots of spring. Hence the the Greek word khloros , meaning “greenish-yellow” and the name Khloe, literally “young green shoot”. This was one of the names of the fertility goddess Demeter. Today we still have Chloe as a girl’s name.
The French word for yellow came a different route – jaune comes from Old French jalne from Latin galbinus and back to ghelHwos (PIE). The Italian giallo is no doubt related.
In Welsh, which is an older language than English, the word for yellow, melyn, comes from Proto-Celtic meli, which, like the Latin mel, came from Proto-Indo-European mélid, all these words meaning honey. In English a related word is mellifluous, “flowing with honey”.
The word in Welsh most closely related to the ancestral PIE word ghel, meaning “bright or shining”, is glas, which means “green-blue-grey”, not yellow.
The associations of the colour yellow are not all positive. It is also associated with illness. People suffer from jaundice (see the French jaune mentioned above) and cholera is a terrible disease with yellowish diarrhoea. The word cholera comes straight from the Latin, and from the Greek kholera, again related to that yellow-green word khloros. Although khole also meant gall, bile, or a gutter.
The four bodily humours – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm – were once believed to control people’s mental and physical health. Too much yellow bile could make you irascible, choleric, and sick. Perhaps this also led to an association of yellow with cowardice, although a racist aspect can’t be ruled out in this.
In nature if you put together yellow with black, you are warning of danger, or saying “don’t eat me because I don’t taste very nice”. This may be why I didn’t like Morrisons supermarkets until they changed their logo a few years ago, from black and yellow to a more appealing green and yellow. Does anyone love wasps?
Being so bright, yellow is useful for keeping us safe as well as warning of danger. A luminous yellow is ideal for high visibility jackets so drivers can see you and avoid a collision, and in the UK an amber yellow is used on some road signs – mainly for directions and warnings about roadworks.
But I’ll finish where I began, on a happy note, with golden flowers. Although they are not in season, I try to have yellow chrysanthemums in the house all year round…