It seems like most of our names for colors come from our German roots (blue/blau, green/grün, red/rot, etc.). But yellow is gelb in German, amarillo in Spanish, jaune in French, and giallo in Italian. I suppose the Italian seems closest, but perhaps they all have something in common?

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    Spanish amarillo is from Latin amarĕllus derived from amārus meaning “bitter”. Wiktionary hyphesizes that this may be because of the yellowish color of bile, which is bitter, but we don’t know for sure.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 18:48
  • @tchrist As I noted in my answer, gall has the same "yellow" root/etymology, so that connection makes sense. The spanish suffix -illo is a diminutive, so amarillo literally means "a bit bitter".
    – ghoppe
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 20:19
  • Fun fact: orange used to be called geoluread (yellowred).
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 23:21
  • Also: gall bladder, jaundice.
    – Kaz
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 1:55
  • @ghoppe That isn’t quite right. The Spanish word for bitter is amargo. It has with an extra g compared with the Latin amarus. So you would be thinking of something more like amarguillo. The reason there is no g there is because it didn’t happen that way, but rather came down to us from Latin amarellus without ever hitting amargo to get here.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 2:27

3 Answers 3


The word for the colour yellow comes from a germanic root as well.

Old English geolu, geolwe, from Proto-Germanic *gelwaz (cf. Old Saxon, Old High German gelo, Middle Dutch ghele, Dutch geel, Middle High German gel, German gelb, Old Norse gulr, Swedish gul "yellow"), from PIE *ghel- "yellow, green" (see Chloe).

Palatalization is a sound change that took place from Old English to Modern English. Here's a short list of words where this shift took place: day (German Tag), yarn (German Garn), way (German Weg), year (Old English gear), nail (German Nagel), yield (Old English geldan, Old High German geltan) and thirsty (German durstig). It also happened with another colour word: gray (Old English græg.)

It should be noted that in Modern German, the terminal g has become devoiced and Tag sounds more like tuck in English.

The word is similar in Latin languages because they all share the same Proto-Indo-European root, *ghel-. It's interesting that this same root which had the meaning "to shine" gave us not only the colour yellow, but also gold, gild, gall (i.e. yellow-coloured bile), and a range of sparkly gl- words: glitter, gleam, glow, etc.

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    Now THAT is an informative answer! Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 19:14
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    +1 and gestern => yesterday which is close to gelb => yellow. Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 19:33
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    The AHD of PIE (2000) entry for *ghel-². Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 20:35
  • What kind of German should include "geltan". Never heard this.
    – harper
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 10:52
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    Also (11 months later), grey is an interesting word, because there actually isn't any palatalisation in it. The OED spelling with a final g is purely orthographic, based on words like dæg, which proves that the palatalisation had already been completed by that time, and that written g in front-vowel environments simply represented /j/. Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 11:20

It’s from the Germanic root gel which has produced both English yellow and German gelb (OED).

  • Not gel but gelw. Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 7:19
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    It depends how far back you want to go. The hypothetical Old Germanic root was gelwa and the hypothetical Indo-European was ghelwo. Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 7:23
  • The point is that the -ow and -b weren't added onto the preexisting word. Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 9:18
  • @reinierpost, perhaps not in Germanic as such, but going farther back, the root is indeed just *gʰel-. The w is part of the suffix, not part of the root; it is absent in other derivatives (see cognates in ghoppe’s answer). Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 20:19
  • @Janus Bahs Jacquet: yes, but you don't need to go further back, and Barrie writes 'Germanic'. Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 8:38

I thought to supplement the other excellent answers with more information about the PIE root *ghel-.

This website lists more derivatives, but references p 29, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots by Calvert Watkins, on which the entry ghel-2 lists many more derivatives an so is too long to reproduce here; so I quote only the underlying semantic field:

to shine ine with derivatives referring to colors, bnght materials. gold (probably "yellow metal"). and bile or gall. (Oldest form *g [There is a diacritic atop g, but I cannot see which diacritic it is from Google Books.] hel-.)

  • Perhaps it is a “ġ”, U+0121 LATIN SMALL LETTER G WITH DOT ABOVE?
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 1:12

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