I've never liked the word black to describe people with dark skin.

Those of us with pigment-enriched skin are certainly not black in color.

Why was the term black used to describe people with dark skin? Why not the more accurate brown or chocolate?

Was this use of the word black originally intended as a pejorative or as a neutral descriptor?


8 Answers 8


I understand you to be asking three questions about English usage and etymology, aside from the general "what's up" question:

  1. Why was the term black used to describe people with dark skin?
  2. Why not the more accurate brown or chocolate?
  3. Was this use of the word black originally intended as a pejorative or as a neutral descriptor?

Your answers will intertwine. Going beyond English to start, however, OED Online has this to say about the comparative semantic history of 'black' in English and in other languages and cultures:

Semantic history.
Metaphorical and figurative uses of words meaning ‘black’ with negative connotations similar to those found in English are widespread in other European languages, frequently in an antonymic relationship with senses of words meaning ‘white’. Similar uses are culturally widespread, but became particularly strong in the medieval Christian tradition. Uses with negative connotations proliferate in the early modern period ..., probably connected in part with negative cultural attitudes towards black people prevalent in the context of the Atlantic slave trade ....

For reference, the "medieval Christian tradition" dates from around 476 to around 1500. The "early modern period" for English begins with the transition from Middle English, starting in the late 1400s, and runs through the middle to late 1600s.

With reference to your questions, observe that 'black' was used from a very early date (undated Old English attestation, followed by attestation from c1225) with this literal sense:

A. adj. I. lit. 1.
b. Of a very dark colour (esp. a shade of red, brown, or purple) closely approaching black.

["black, adj. and n.". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/19670?rskey=iYk5VM&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed January 13, 2016).]

So the use of 'black' with reference to any very dark color is of early origin. No pejorative or otherwise negative connotations are remarked of this use in OED Online.

Thus, in partial answer to your first question ("Why was the term black used to describe people with dark skin?"), 'black' was used to refer to any very dark color, and so by extension could've been applied to any very dark-complexioned person without any necessary negative force. This is only a partial answer, and the answer to your next question may modulate it.

Following A.I.1.b, there is sense A.I.2.a, where 'black' with the meaning of 'dark-complexioned' was applied in early (original?) use with reference to descriptive surnames and nicknames of individuals:

2. Characterized in some way by this quality or colour.
a. Having black hair or eyes; dark-complexioned.

In early use chiefly with reference to the (descriptive) surnames or nicknames of particular individuals.

(op. cit.)

Sense 2a, now rare, is attested with an early Old English quote, a quote from perhaps around 1190, and others through 1525 for names and nicknames; the first quote given for 'dark-complexioned' is from Shakespeare, Othello, composed sometime before 1616:

a 1616 Shakespeare Othello (1622) ii. i. 134 How if she be blacke and witty?

(op. cit.)

Although the OED Online lumps the preceding editorial comment with the next one, I think that conglomerization is an error. The attested uses with reference to surnames and nicknames do not seem markedly either (a) antonymic (opposed to 'white' or 'fair') or (b) negative, whereas uses with reference to complexion as a perceived cultural or ancestral difference do seem to be both antonymic to 'white' or 'fair', and negative. As the OED Online editors remark,

In use with reference to complexion formerly often with implicit or explicit contrast with the conventional positive connotations of white adj. 3 and fair adj. 17.

(op. cit.)

This may partially complete the answer to your first question, with reference to your second ("Why not the more accurate brown or chocolate?"). Briefly, while the use with reference to a name or nickname denoting 'dark-haired' or 'dark-eyed' was not necessarily pejorative, it bordered on the use with reference to 'dark-complected', which involved in turn an antonymic contrast with 'white', 'fair' or 'light'. In this sense, 'white', which does not refer to a literal 'white' but rather to 'fair' or 'light' as opposed to 'dark', was associated with 'female beauty' or, more generally, with people who didn't have to do manual labor:

white, adj. ...
3. Of or with reference to the skin or complexion: light in colour, pale, fair.

In earlier use a conventional attribute of (especially female) beauty. Cf. fair adj. 17.

Frequently implying that a person with such an appearance does not undertake manual work and avoids contact with bright sunlight.

fair, adj. ...
17. Of hair or complexion: light as opposed to dark in colour. Of a person: having such colouring. ....

In early use freq. associated with beauty, ....

["white, adj. (and adv.) and n.1". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/228566 (accessed January 13, 2016) and "fair, adj. and n.1". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/67704 (accessed January 13, 2016).]

The attestations for 'white' in the sense of 'light-complexioned' begin with undated Old English quotes. The first dated quote is from perhaps around 1225:

OE Cynewulf Elene 73 Þuhte him wlitescyne on weres hade hwit ond hiwbeorht hæleða nathwylc geywed ænlicra þonne he ær oððe sið gesege.
OE Ælfric Catholic Homilies: 1st Ser. (Royal) (1997) xxxi. 440 He is blæcfexede & cyrps, hwit on lichaman [L. caro eius candida], & he hæfþ steape eagan & medemlice nosu.
?c 1225 (▸? a 1200) Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. C.vi) (1972) 92 Hire seolf bi halden hire achne hwite honden.

For 'fair' in that same sense, early attestations are from around 1175 and around 1275:

c 1175 (▸OE) Homily: Hist. Holy Rood-tree (Bodl. 343) (1894) 18 Þa wurdon þa tweȝe cnihtæs al swa fæȝeres hiwæs swa heoræ fæderæs wæron & þa modra wæron alswa swearte swa heo ær wæron.
c 1275 (▸?a 1200) Laȝamon Brut (Calig.) (1978) 14715 Eouwer cun is feȝerest of alle quike monnen.

These are uses related to the use of 'black' and 'white' in English, you understand, although other cultures shared the prejudices as noted earlier, and that cultural dispersion "became particularly strong in the medieval Christian tradition".

However, I don't think any very definite answer to your second question can be provided. That 'black' referred to 'dark' rather than a literal black, combined with the negative connotations of the antonymical contrast with white, along with a general tendency to use an over-arching term where one is available, rather than a precise description, explains as well as possible "why not the more accurate" terms.

The foregoing has quite possibly already provided a sufficient answer for your third question ("Was this use of the word black originally intended as a pejorative or as a neutral descriptor?"). The answer must be that the use of 'black' with reference to 'dark-complexioned', originally, was intended as both a pejorative and a neutral descriptor. The evidence, as I see it, does not allow a clear historical differentiation between the original pejorative and the original neutral uses.

  • 1
    I liked how you summarized my questions quite well. Good job! I will be reading your answer several times to fully understand all the details you provided. Thanks. Jan 14, 2016 at 6:57
  • 1
    This kind of historical shift in expected precision of colour-words used to describe people may also explain why people with slightly pink-tinged blond hair are mysteriously called red-haired. Jan 16, 2016 at 1:14

During the 1960s in the United States, "Black" was self-applied by people of African-American descent who wished to bring new, affirmative awareness to the American civil rights movement and particularly to the more assertive concept of "Black Power." At the time, there was nothing pejorative about it; it simply replaced the term "Negro." Over time, "Black" has been replaced with the more accurate terms "African-American" and, even more broadly, with "people of color."

  • 3
    Note that African-American is only accurate when the person is from Africa. Millions (or even billions) of people with dark skin are not from Africa. As an example, I have a close friend who gets very upset when people call her African-American, because, well, she's not. Jan 14, 2016 at 6:48
  • 6
    Also note that African-American is only accurate when the person has American citizenship. When Americans call black people 'African-Americans' up here in Canada, they draw disapproving glances (yes, we Canadians call them 'black people', and I have never met anyone in Canada who has been offended by the term).
    – Anonym
    Jan 14, 2016 at 7:27
  • 3
    A South African born in South Africa, and so was his grandfather, and great-grandfather. Then he came to America. Is he African-American? I mean, he is not black. Jan 14, 2016 at 10:07
  • 1
    I have a black, British friend who moved to the USA, and has found many people who cant understand that he isn't African-American. Jan 14, 2016 at 16:23

Here's a picture of someone with a high concentration of melanin in his skin: enter image description here

What color would you call the man's skin, and why don't you like calling that color black?

You don't say where you're from, but in the US, there's a spectrum of shades of pigmented skin (for the obvious reason) and a long and tortured racial history behind the identification of a single color with that spectrum. That history is probably beyond the scope of a discussion of English usage.

  • 3
    The photo you chose is an overcontrasted black and white photo, with half of it in deep shadow. Even still, if you have a black vehicle, and they repainted one door with the color of that gentleman's skin, you would complain that it was not even close to black. Jan 14, 2016 at 6:56
  • 2
    @RockPaperLizard Please don't tell what I think or what I would do. I've actually met people with skin color matching the photograph. This is independent of and consistent with the fact that in the US, the word used for skin color is not a matter of chromaticity.
    – deadrat
    Jan 14, 2016 at 7:07
  • 1
    Easy, tiger. I explained how the photograph you chose is an overcontrasted, highly shadowed, black and white photo, which is not an effective example when the topic may involve color. I then used a concrete example to show how the color in that photograph is not even black. The example had nothing to do with you. You can replace the word "you" with "one", if it makes you more comfortable. Jan 14, 2016 at 7:15
  • 1
    @RockPaperLizard Tiger? You've claimed that the photograph is overcontrasted and highly shadowed. (The profile view isn't in shadow.) And you made up a hypothetical about an imaginary car. This makes for an odd usage of "explained" and "concrete", no?
    – deadrat
    Jan 14, 2016 at 7:22
  • 1
    No. Or as they say in Spanish, no. Jan 14, 2016 at 9:24

Originally the Africans encountered by the Europeans around Nigeria, the Congo, and in general, below the desert did have extremely dark skin. Their skin was a lot darker than almost all African Americans and similar people today. Since their skin color was actually black, so they were called. Even though the descendants of those people gradually got lighter skin as they intermarried and lived outside of Africa, the original name stuck

  • 1
    It should be noted that geneticists have shown that genetic skin color changes rather quickly (in terms of human history) based on sun exposure, since sun exposure affects fertility in significant ways. I'm recalling that complete changes can occur in 50 or so generations, with partial changes obviously occurring much faster.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 14, 2016 at 1:09
  • Intermarried and lived outside Africa And then there's what happened in the US.
    – deadrat
    Jan 14, 2016 at 7:16

The question and follow-up comments by RockPaperLizard (e.g. in response to @deadrat's answer) suggest the premise that English words associated with colors should be used only in relation to absolute colors as they would be described by, say, a physicist. However, that is simply not true. It is well-known and recognized that human perception of colors is relative and very much context-dependent. This is illustrated, for example, by this image from Wikipedia:

enter image description here

(Which one of the two circular colored spots do you think is brighter? Click the Wikipedia link to find out.)

As another example, also from Wikipedia, which color is this cat?

enter image description here

Do you think its color justifies referring to it as a "Russian blue"?

If I had the time I could probably find countless other examples of this type of phenomenon, but you get the idea.

To summarize, the physical color of the skin of dark-skinned people is probably not very close to the color black as defined by a physicist, and (as RockPaperLizard argued) if one of the doors of a black car were painted with that color then most people would probably say the door was not black, but that is missing an essential point regarding the human perception of colors and how it interacts with human psychology and language. White people aren't "really" white, black people aren't really black, Russian blue cats aren't really blue, etc., but it is still useful and reasonably accurate to refer to them as such under the color model of our language (as opposed to the more precise, scientific color model used by physicists, computer programmers, people in the printing industry, etc.).


Let me complement the interesting posts here by pointing out a recent post on Malcolm Gladwell's personal blog. Gladwell's mother comes from Jamaica, and he gives a captivating account of her family history in Outliers, complemented by references to Jamaican conception of skin colour. Peaking in the 19th century, people of Jamaica displayed awareness to their own and their peers' skin colour, making comparisons, tracing their heritage for mixed marriages, bleaching their skin occasionally, etc. Apparently those with lighter shades of skin would often hold themselves a cut above their darker compatriots.

Here's a sample post on the topic. Unabashedly, the scale to compare against is rendered (in English) in terms of colours such as white, brown, or black. Gladwell uses black as a neutral term, too.



The noun Black, and the more recent expression Black person, were the logical replacements for the older term Negro, as Etymonline attests

"member of a black-skinned race of Africa," 1550s, from Spanish or Portuguese negro "black," from Latin nigrum (nominative niger) "black, dark, sable, dusky," As an adjective from 1590s. Use with a capital N- became general early 20c. (e.g. 1930 in "New York Times" stylebook) in reference to U.S. citizens of African descent, but because of its perceived association with white-imposed attitudes and roles the word was ousted late 1960s in this sense by Black.

black (adj.) [...] According to OED: "In ME. it is often doubtful whether blac, blak, blake, means 'black, dark,' or 'pale, colourless, wan, livid.' " Used of dark-skinned people in Old English. [...]

A "black" person could be anyone whose skin was particularly tanned or if their hair was simply black. For example, pubs in England that were called The Black Boy were named after King Charles II's nickname given to him by his mother because of the darkness of his skin and eyes.

There was also another term commonly used to describe the population from Northwest Africa, Wikipedia cites the following:
"The Moors were simply Maghrebis, inhabitants of the maghreb, the western part of the Islamic world, that extends from Spain to Tunisia, and represents a homogeneous cultural entity", Titus Burckhardt, Moorish culture in Spain. Suhail Academy. 1997, p.7

Moor (n.)
North African, Berber," late 14c., from Old French More, from Medieval Latin Morus, from Latin Maurus "inhabitant of Mauritania" (northwest Africa, a region now corresponding to northern Algeria and Morocco), from Greek Mauros, perhaps a native name, or else cognate with mauros "black" (but this adjective only appears in late Greek and may as well be from the people's name as the reverse). Being a dark people in relation to Europeans, their name in the Middle Ages was a synonym for "Negro;" later (16c.-17c.) used indiscriminately of Muslims (Persians, Arabs, etc.) but especially those in India.


The OP asked:

Why not the more accurate brown or chocolate?

In a chapter titled On the Unity of the Human Species (1860), it's worth noting that the term brown-skinned was used for Mongolians

Thus in Asia may be seen brown-skinned Calmucks side by side with Georgians and Circassians, who are so remarkable for the whiteness of their skin. Not far from the inhabitants of Cashmere, who are white or nearly so, and under the same latitude we find the Nepaulese, who, notwithstanding the great elevation of their mountains and their temperate climate, have a black skin; whereas the neighbouring Bengalese, who live in the plains and more to the south, have a skin only coffee coloured.

The Portuguese. who have been settlers on the Guinea coast since the fifteenth century, and on the Mozambique coast since the sixteenth, have not lost their original colour. The Arabs who inhabited these same coasts many centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese have not taken the Negro colour...

But Caucasians, or so-called “white” people, whose skins have become tanned under the sun are often described as having brown skin.

  1. Ruined ivy-plumed side-walls, in a grassy enclosure, in which blue-eyed, brown-skinned, white-haired toddlers are playing (Anthony Trollope)
  2. … somewhat like the skin of many brown-skinned white people

  3. M.S. wishes to know if she may be considered good-looking. She is five feet and a half high, rather slender, brown eyes and hair, rather a brown skin, red cheeks, a short straight nose, a little mouth, a round face and a high forehead. We should say with the exception of the skin, that you were entitled to a vast amount of admiration.

The last quotation taken from an article in The London Journal printed in 1862, would be unpublishable nowadays. It smacks of racism and sexism, but in the 19th century and earlier, the paler a woman's skin was, the more it was revered and admired.


The racial sense (adj.) of "of those races (chiefly European or of European extraction) characterized by light complexion" is first recorded c.1600. The noun in this sense ("white man, person of a race distinguished by light complexion") is from 1670s.

Since the medieval ages, porcelain skin was coveted in western Europe, it was the single, most distinguishable feature that separated the aristocracy from the peasants with their lined leathery skins, and the tenant farmers who toiled the land in the sun, rain and wind. Pale complexions in women was a sign of wealth, youth, and delicacy. In an attempt to enhance the pallor their skins, women in Elizabethan England would resort to using ‘ceruse’, an artificial skin-whitener made from lead and vinegar and applied to the face, neck and bosom. The first record of this ‘face paint’ is found in 1519 in Horman's Vulgaria puerorum. The effect was startling, women really did appear to have “white skin”.

enter image description here

From the Greek Tragedy, Medea, by Euripides in 431B.C, the color white is used to describe Jason's new bride, a royal princess from Corinth. The following excerpt is from E. P. Coleridge's translation, 1910.

... tripping lightly on her fair white foot, exulted in the gift, with many a glance at her uplifted ankle. [...] The chaplet of gold about her head was sending forth a wondrous stream of ravening flame, while the fine raiment, thy children's gifts, was preying on the hapless maiden's fair white flesh; and she starts from her seat in a blaze and seeks to fly, shaking her hair and head this way and that, ...


The word is said to be a translation (sometimes); it is rumored to have come from Latin through Spanish and/or Portuguese. Romans made no bones about classifying people by their skin color, and nothing sounded offensive unless one wanted it to.

The Chinese used to call white people "pinks." If you know any white people, you probably know that they're neither white nor pink.

Langston Hughes, a black poet, had this to say in The Big Sea:

You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word “Negro” is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black. I am brown. My father was a darker brown. My mother an olive-yellow.

That said, it is indeed a racist practice to call all people with any degree of African origin black (the "one drop" rule). It is humiliating for everyone involved. However, the practice is so ubiquitous, that not too many people realize it. I, for one, have no idea why President Obama, who is half-black and half-white, insists on calling himself black. He really should know better: I know for a fact that he is intelligent.

On the other hand, all the euphemisms we've come up with over the past three centuries for designating races are dated and, in the final analysis, fatuous. The word Caucasian, for instance, was coined by a German anthropologist Friedrich Blumenbach who erroneously placed the origins of the white race in the Caucasus mountains (modern day Georgia and Armenia). In his day, folks believed that there were five basic races on the planet: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, Malayan, and American. A slightly more modern theory classified them as White, Mongoloid, Negroid, and - I can't remember the term for the inhabitants of India and its neighboring states.

Any word (really: any word) can grow negative connotations over time. That's no reason to abandon perfectly good words, replacing them with nonsensical euphemisms. There is nothing at all wrong with the words black, white, or Oriental, for that matter. It is how they're used that gets everybody worked up (for nothing).

An "African-American" is no more African that any other red-blooded American; "European Americans" are hardly European per se. Asia includes such important and elegant countries as India, Turkey, and a good portion of Siberia, whose inhabitants would be astonished to learn that in some traditions they're supposed to be related to the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans.

And let me hasten to add that not all actual Africans are black. Egypt is in Africa too, you know.

  • 2
    The practice is humiliating only for those who find it so. Most of the black people I know in Britain refer to themselves as black (well, they're clearly not "African-American"!). I don't know why you want to imply that people who designate themselves so are unintelligent.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 14, 2016 at 0:46
  • 1
    @ColinFine: Where did I imply that? Goodness. Most American blacks refer to themselves as black. You may have been misled by the fact that it's kind of silly (yes, I said that, and i stand by it) for people of mixed origin, such as my current President, to refer to themselves as black.
    – Ricky
    Jan 14, 2016 at 0:51
  • @Ricky Very white of you, to be sure. Black Americans are usually "more African" than other Americans in that they have more proximate African ancestors. Ultimately, paleontology tells us that we're all of African descent. Mixed-race Americans call themselves black, not because of their skin color but because of how they identify with a particular subculture of society.
    – deadrat
    Jan 14, 2016 at 4:16
  • @deadrat: Nah. Whites don't care for my views either. Paleontology tells us no such thing. Amazingly enough, it hasn't advanced at all since Mark Twain wrote his essay on it. Many mixed-race folks call themselves black, and identify with whatever passes for a subculture these days, because they're encouraged to do so, and not because, say, the Irish, Polish, or Italian subculture, or just plain old mainstream culture (depending on the ethnic group Mom or Dad belongs to) is inferior or taboo. It's good old bilateral racism, simon-and-garfunkel pure and cheesecake simple.
    – Ricky
    Jan 14, 2016 at 6:04
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    @Ricky Really, really white of you. But "mixed-race" folks everywhere are, I'm sure, grateful for your explanations of their feelings of cultural identity. And, yeah, paleontology (and genetics) tells us that our species likely originated in Africa. Sorry if that's a problem for you.
    – deadrat
    Jan 14, 2016 at 6:08

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