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


  • 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’?
  • 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 '16 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 '16 at 12:57
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    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 '16 at 17:10
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    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 '16 at 18:46
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    @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 '16 at 19:00

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


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



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



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).


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 a mantle of light green,
(Reserved, by custom, for that day)
Parthenophe, they did array !
And did create her, Summer's Queen !
And Ruler of their merry May !

Barnabe Barnes, May 1593.

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