27

In English, we often use the adjective light before another colour to express a whiter shade of hue. For example, light blue, light green, light brown, etc. The term pale is used in a similar way, e.g.; pale grey, pale yellow, and pale red.

Etymonline dates this usage of light:

light (adj.2) (see light (n.)). Meaning "pale-hued" is from 1540s.

and for pale early 1300s

pale (adj.) early 14c., from Old French paile "pale, light-colored" (12c., Modern French pâle), from Latin pallidus "pale, pallid, wan, colorless," from pallere "be pale, grow pale,"

If we look at names for “light blue”, only azure predates Early Modern English

  • azure early 14c., from Old French azur, asur, a color name...
  • sky blue is said to have first appeared in print in 1704

    A Collection of Voyages and Travels (London: Awnsham and John Churchill, 1704), vol. 2, p. 322, where John Nieuhoff describes certain flowers: "they are of a lovely sky blue colour, and yellow in the middle" Wikipedia

  • cyan (originally called cyan-blue) meaning ‘light blue’ is dated 1879

To illustrate my point more clearly, here is a Google Ngram set at British English, which suggests that the combination, light + name of colour, began from mid 17th century.

Ngram chart


Questions

  • How did Middle and Early Modern English speakers say that a colour was light?
  • Did they place term white before a colour; e.g. whit blewe (white blue)?
  • What does whyte russet mean? Is it a ‘pale reddish-brown’?
11
  • 5
    I suspect that the answer to this question would depend on the color technology (paints/dyes) and the local environment of the culture. Thus, shades of blue, for example, would probably be described by something in nature that they resembled (sky, robin's egg) or by the animal/mineral/vegetable extract used to make a pigment for paints or fabric dyes. ("Light" or "dark" may not have been an important factor in the description.)
    – Oldbag
    Jun 28, 2016 at 14:50
  • 1
    Was there any particular motivation that got you to ask this question? Like, were you casually reading Chaucer, as one does, and saw the word 'blue' and wondered how he would have said 'light blue'? You do realize that a legitimate answer was 'They didn't bother'. For example, what is the term that Middle English have for 'indigo'? It was probably just 'purple' since Newton came up with the term indigo himself (for some intermediate shade of purple). Also, for clarification, are you looking for a systematic construction or is one 'light' word for each color OK?
    – Mitch
    Jun 30, 2016 at 12:57
  • 2
    No, @Mitch I never read Chaucer, Piers Plowman, or the William Tyndale Bible. The first two are incomprehensible to me. I was merely struck to discover that expressions I took for granted, such as light blue, light red and light green did not seem to have existed prior to Shakespeare or, if you prefer, the 1600s. I do not consider, "They didn't bother", to be a legitimate answer, but you're free to post it if that is what you think.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 30, 2016 at 17:10
  • 1
    I'm surprised that you'd think 'no answer' is not a legitimate answer. Some languages have only 3 color terms. You're asking a question like 'how did a language which only has a word for the range red-to-yellow say red?' The point is they just don't. So I'm not sure what is an acceptable answer. Also, what is 'light'? Less saturated in an HSV model. 'Bright' sounds like more saturated to me.
    – Mitch
    Jun 30, 2016 at 18:46
  • 3
    @Mitch the question is limited to the English language. What does the link tell me how the English communicated different shades of colour in medieval England? But I think you are right about bright, maybe in the 15th century it had a different meaning when it was attached to a colour.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 30, 2016 at 19:00

4 Answers 4

7

It seems that you could use Fair, Fade or Faint (there might be others)

Fair

and its other forms

fair (adj.) Also (early) faȝer, faier, fei(e)r, vair, fare, fer(e, war, fæger, fægerra, fægrost

According to the Middle English dictionary from Umich

(a) Light, bright, or shining (as opposed to dark); (b) of persons: light of complexion or color of hair and eyes; fair.

It seems to have been used with color (other than applied to skin or complexion):

Found at least one reference as cited in Altenglische legenden ... Horstmann, Carl, ed. b. 1851.

þat þis on schal beo fair blu cloth

...

Faint

Of things, actions, functions, etc.: weak, feeble; impaired, poor; pale (color)...

...

Fade

Of color or things having color: lacking in brilliance; pale, discolored, dim; dull; fade-heued.

(Fade-heued meaning "light-colored")

>c1300 SLeg.Mich.(LdMisc 108) 672: Ho-so hath of þe eorþe mest, he is..Of fade [vr. vad] colur.

...

As for your example of "whyte Russet" I think russet is used here in the sense of

"a serviceable woolen cloth, usu. of plain or subdued color & usu. worn by the poor or by workingmen (also by the Duke of Suffolk as a sea-cloak)"

the same way Whites can be used for "clothes usually of white color" in modern sense, Russet is used by analogy for the piece of cloth usually of the color Russet or the fabric material itself with which one makes russets.

See here in The Stonor letters and papers, 1290-1483; ed. for the Royal historical society, from the original documents in the Public record office, by Charles Lethbridge Kingsford, for Russet used with the color Black, for example, in the sense of piece of cloth or fabric material.

a ȝerde off blake russet karyssey to make Richert Baron a dublet

a payre off hosyn off russet karyssey,

Item a gowne of russet furryd wt blakke,

another example of russet used in the sense of fabric.

And is as gladde of a goune · of a graye russet /

So the answer is I don't think whyte russet mean a light russet (color).

4

From about 1300 is Lenten ys come with loue to toune
(alternative source)

The rose rayleth hire rode;
The leues on the lyhte wode
Waxen al with wille.

which has been translated as:

The rose begins to blush;
The leaves in the light-green wood
All unfurl gladly.

Other translations exist such as that of Aniee Jeong

An early modern English example is from Parthenophil and Parthenophe. Sonnettes, Madrigals, Elegies and Odes

There in amantle of light greene,
Reseru'd by custome for that day
Parthenophe they did aray
And did create her sommers Queene,
And ruler of their merrie may.

Barnabe Barnes, May 1593.

2
  • 1
    Your source for the last example gives modernised spelling. The original spelling is available online from the EEBOTCP: “There in amantle of light greene, // Reseru'd by custome for that day // Parthenophe they did aray // And did create her sommers Queene, // And ruler of their merrie may.” (I guess the missing space in amantle is a transcription error, but I’m not sure.)
    – PLL
    Sep 28, 2022 at 9:24
  • 1
    @PLL , thanks, I changed my answer to what you said.
    – DavePhD
    Sep 28, 2022 at 14:36
2

Etymonline is wrong; light has been used to modify color words long before the 1540s. To supplement @DavePHD's answer, here are a few more examples courtesy of a Middle English dictionary creatively titled, Middle English Dictionary:

  • "Ʒelouʒ colour [of urine] & melky..tokeneþ feblenes of hete..& liʒt red [L subrufus] tokeneþ mene." - [1398, Middle English translation of Bartholomaeus's De Proprietatibus Rerum]

  • "pannis integris de lyghtgrene" - [1420, Account Rolls of the Abbey of Durham]

  • "peciæ de light blew and sade blew operatæ." - [1449, Testamenta Eboracensia]

  • "Periot is stone þat is lyʒt grene" - [1500, Lapidary in Peterborough 33]

And here's one I found in Chaucer [late 14th-century], modifying watchet (a shade of blue):

Y-clad he was ful smal and proprely, al in a kirtel of a liht wachet — ful faire and thikke been the poyntes set.

-1

Even today, there's confusion regarding color terminology. The idea of "light blue" could refer to the hue called "blue" with lots of white added to it (that's often referred to in the context of prints and dyes as "a tint of blue" (just as by adding black to a hue, one produces various "shades of blue").

However, the idea of "light blue" might also embrace the idea of adding the complement of blue (that color lying 180-degrees apart from the specified color on a color wheel), which "desaturates" the hue, and brings it incrementally closer to gray.

Thus, to lighten a color, or to make it paler, could mean (without more restrictive definitions) adding white to produce a tint, or adding the complement, in order to desaturate it.

The Munsell System of color identification specified three metrics, or "dimensions," of color: hue, value, chroma. "Hue" is the name of the pure color by its family name (blue, red, green, etc.). "Value" is how light the hue is in terms of tinting and shading (represented along a vertical axis, with pure white at the north pole, and pure black at the south). "Chroma" referred to the saturation or purity of a hue. The pure hue was represented on the "equator" of a sphere, with progressively less saturated, or "grayer," versions of the hue appearing as it moved toward the central Value axis.

The Pantone System of color-matching appeared after Munsell (a painter by profession) did his classification, but uses similar dimensions, which I remember as being Hue, Brightness, and Saturation.

The above comments on color assume the subtractive model of color production; i.e., colors as it pertains to paints, pigments, dyes, and semi-opaque filters of glass, plastic, etc.

4
  • 2
    What does this have to do with the question? Your answer doesn't seem to be about Middle English (or Early Modern English) terminology at all.
    – Laurel
    Sep 28, 2022 at 17:35
  • Has to do with what someone in the days of Middle English or Early Modern English actually meant by "Light Blue" or "Pale Blue." Might not be what we mean by those terms. Sep 28, 2022 at 17:43
  • You mean 20th century English (when the Pantone and Munsell systems were created)? Do you have any other sources for the information in your post?
    – Laurel
    Sep 28, 2022 at 17:50
  • Any standard book on color theory and its history. Since we moderns don't always know what is meant by "light blue" (a higher value of blue? a lower chroma of blue? which?) then we couldn't possibly know what someone in the Middle Ages meant by it. It becomes a translation problem. Sep 28, 2022 at 17:59

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.