Daltonism is a term coined after the English chemist John Dalton (1766–1844), who had the condition and did early research into:

  • the inability or defective ability to perceive or distinguish certain colors, especially red-green.

The term was replaced by color-blindness about 50 years later in 1844:

Color blindness:

  • 1844, replacing Daltonism (after English chemist John Dalton, 1766-1844, who published a description of it in 1794); in figurative use, with reference to race or ethnicity, attested from 1866, American English. (Etymonline)
  • Now daltonic and daltonism are used only in medical contexts. Ngram: color blindness vs daltonism.

Curiously the English term has survived in common usage in French daltonien, in Italian daltonico and in Spanish daltónico, while in German the term is faberblind (literally, color-blind) as in English.


  • Where does "color blindness" come from? Was it imported from Germany as a more colloquial alternative to "daltonism"?
  • Has the figurative usage of "color-blind" actually become more common than its "medical" connotation in AmE?

My answer focuses on the first two of Josh61's questions—namely "Where does 'color blindness' come from? Was it imported from Germany as a more colloquial alternative to 'daltonism'?"

From a review of B. Joy Jeffries, Color Blindness: Its Dangers and Its Detection in The London Lancet: A Journal of British and Foreign Medicine (1880):

Although color-blindness must have existed at all times, the first recorded case, the not very satisfactory one, by Dr. Turberville, occurred in 1684. This patient could see forms very well, but no color besides black and white. She was probably hysterical, as she had scintillations at night, with appearances of animals, and could read for almost a quarter of an hour in great darkness. The next case was that of a man named Harris, reported by Mr. Huddart in 1777. The next was that of Mr. J. Scott in 1779. And then in 1794 comes the case of Dalton, whose description of his own red-blindness has become so well known as to have led some to apply the term “Daltonism” to color-blindness—a term that Dr. Joy Jeffries very properly deprecates, since it applies the name of a great philosopher to a prominent defect. ... Notwithstanding that all the earlier reported cases were English, no treatise appeared in this country on the subject till that of Wilson in 1855, and we have to thank Dr. Joy Jeffries for his very intelligently-written and useful little volume, which fills the hiatus that has been much felt.

With regard to nomenclature, perhaps the most significant assertion made here is that "no treatise appeared in this country [England] on the subject till that of Wilson in 1855." Treatises may not have appeared, but an article titled "Daltonism" appeared in Knight's Penny Magazine, volume 1 (1846), which never uses the term colorblind, but offers the following classification terminology, based on the conclusions of "Professor Wartmann, of Lausanne," who "presented a paper concerning it to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1841":

Professor Wartmann separates these cases into two classes, viz. dichromatic Daltonians, who can discern two colours, generally black and white; and polychromatic Daltonians, who can discern at least three colours.

Wartmann's article "Memoir on Daltonism {or Colour Blindness}," as read at the Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève on April 16, 1840, is reproduced in Scientific Memoirs, Selected from the Transactions of Foreign Academies of Science and Learned Societies, and from Foreign Journals, volume 4 (1846). Wartmann explains the choice of the name Daltonism thus:

Reserving the name Chromopsis for those cases in which colours are perceived in an extraordinary manner in consequence of a change of health, I shall apply to that in which the affection is natural the name of Daltonism, proposed by Professor Prevost, because the illustrious natural philosopher Dalton has described, as existing in his own case, many particulars of it.

But in a subsequent footnote, Wartmann defends the choice of the name Daltonism in the name of scientific continuity:

Professor Whewell is mistaken in attributing to me the choice of this denomination; I preserve it to avoid introducing a new one, whilst I quite agree with him, that few persons desire to be immortalized by their imperfections, and that Dalton, above all others, has no need of such a means of transmitting his name to posterity. ... For the rest, I think with an illustrious natural philosopher (Sir D. Brewster [in a January 1842 review]), ... that the term Idiopts, by which Mr. Whewell designates the Daltonians, is by no means a happy one. ... Nearly forty years ago the denomination Daltonian was employed in the oral instruction in the Academy of Geneva. Pierre Prevost printed as follows in 1827, in the Bibliothèque Universelle: "The subject, whose vision he has described, appears to differ from the great number of those whom I am accustomed to call daltonians only by a slight degree of darkness in the shades."—Tome xxxv. p. 321. And further on:—"On this statement......I do not hesitate to pronounce him a Daltonian."—Ibid. p. 322.

The issue was so delicate, however, that the editor of Scientific Memoirs deemed it appropriate to append another footnote regarding the name choice:

NOTE.—Sir David Brewster, in his remarks on this memoir (Phil. Mag. for Aug. 1844, p. 134), expresses his regret that the author should have continued to employ this term [Daltonism], which he censures as degrading to the venerated name of Dalton, and faulty in regard of nomenclature. It is with reluctance that the Editor becomes accessory to the retention of this objectionable denomination, for which he would have much preferred to substitute Parachromatism, Parachromatic, &c., derivatives of παραχρωννυμι, παραχρωσις, &c., as designating generally the fact of perversion of colour; but he is advised that such a change would be beyond the province of a translator. He has, however, ventured to add, in the title merely, the term Colour Blindness, adopted by Sir David Brewster. Dyschromatopsis, Pseudopsis and Heteropsis have been suggested, but the latter two are not sufficiently specific.—ED.

A review of Wartmann's Memoir on Daltonism and Brewster's Observations on Colour Blindness, or Insensibility to the Impression of Certain Colours in The Princeton Review (July 1845) offers this account of the naming controversy:

On account of the prominence which Mr. Dalton's publication gave this defect of vision, the continental philosophers gave it the name of Daltonism. To this name, however, several British writers strongly objected. If this system of names were once allowed, say they, there is no telling where it would stop, the names of celebrated men would be connected, not with their superior gifts or achievements, but with the personal defects which distinguish them from their more favoured but less meritorious contemporaries. Professor Whewell proposed the term Idiopts, signifying peculiarity of vision ; but to this name Sir David Brewster properly objected, that the important consonant p would be very apt to be omitted in ordinary pronunciation, and so the last state of the Idiopt would be worse than the first. The name colour-blindness, suggested by Sir David, although not in all cases free from objection, is perhaps better than any we have seen proposed.

So colo[u]r blindness originated with Sir David Brewster, who disliked associating the illustrious name of Sir John Dalton with an imperfection, albeit one that Dalton possessed. The original term daltonian is harder to pin down. In exculpating himself, Professor Wartmann attributes the original choice to unnamed persons at the Academy of Geneva and secondarily to Professor Prevost writing in 1827. Adding a truly dissonant note to the proceedings was Professor Whewell's counter-suggestion Idiopts.

One can only wonder whether the subsequent course of terminology in English would have been different if the editor of Scientific Memoirs in 1846 had dared to go beyond the province of a translator and had changed all of Wartmann's instances of Daltonism and Daltonian to Parachromatism and Parachromatic.

  • Let me get this straight, the term Daltonism was not selected by Whewell & Co because ...that few persons desire to be immortalized by their imperfections, and that Dalton, above all others, has no need of such a means of transmitting his name to posterity... Who was Prof. Whewell? And it was not common folk, ordinary English speaking people who first coined colour blindness, that term was introduced by Sir David Brewster. – Mari-Lou A Jul 2 '16 at 6:25
  • 4
    @Mari-LouA: Thanks for pointing out the apples/applies typo; that's a new one for me. Colour blindness does appear to be traceable to a specific person (Brewster) who championed it out of philosophical aversion to an existing, albeit fairly new word (Daltonism). The Rev. Professor William Whewell was a major figure in British scientific societies in the mid-19th century, according to the Wikipedia article about him, which credits him with coining the terms scientist, physicist, consillience, catastrophism, and uniformitarianism. – Sven Yargs Jul 2 '16 at 15:19

The precise medical term for color blindness is Deuteranopia
(aka Red-Green Color Blindness)

Via Colour blindness.com

Deutan color vision deficiencies are by far the most common forms of color blindness. This subtype of red-green color blindness is found in about 6% of the male population, mostly in its mild form deuteranomaly

The article then elucidates that only 0.35% of the female population suffer from deuteranomaly. The two following photographs compares the perception of colour between someone with normal colour vision and someone with deuteranopia.

An example of "normal" vision and on the right "deuteranopia" vision

enter image description hereenter image description here

In 1794, John Dalton published his first scientific paper which he called: Extraordinary Facts Relating to the Vision of Colours. Dalton was the first scientist to realize that the condition was hereditary because he and his brother had the same disorder.

The British website QI (Quite Interesting) describes the first time John Dalton understood his vision was not similar to others.

[...] At the age of 26 he bought his elderly mother a pair of stockings for her birthday, which he didn't realise were scarlet. As a devout Quaker she was expected to dress soberly so this caused a miniature scandal in the family - which Dalton was initially at a loss to understand, as he thought they were blue. His brother couldn’t see what the problem was, either – Dalton’s first clue to the genetic nature of colour-blindness. He had a similar problem later in life, when he scandalised fellow Quakers by wearing a scarlet academic gown at an audience with the King; he thought it was grey.

So it was not until Dalton was twenty-six did he realize that he could not distinguish shades of greens and reds, and when he had made this self-discovery he did not know what this condition was called, no one had coined the term that English native speakers know today, colour blindness. The author of John Dalton and The Rise of Modern Chemistry (1901) explains:

It seems almost incredible that Dalton should have lived to the age of twenty-six without noticing this peculiarity; and yet it appears less strange when we remember that thousands of persons have, probably since time was, suffered in a similar manner without knowledge of their infirmity; and, indeed, Dalton was almost the first to direct the attention of the scientific world to the subject.

Dalton himself described it as “the infirmity of my eyes” (p.73) The author, Sir Henry E. Roscoe, clearly states that the term colour-blindness is owed to David Brewster (which @Sven Yarg's answer also mentions) but Roscoe initially expresses perplexity on its appropriacy:

Elie Wartmann, of Lausanne, and Prevost, of Geneva, investigated the peculiarity in question, to which they gave the name of "Daltonism" [...] George Wilson, whose researches on this question were published in 1855, proposed the name “Chromato-Pseudopsis,” or false-colour vision. This is certainly a more correct term, though rather a jaw-breaker. Herschel coined the word “Dichromic,” or “two-coloured” vision. But this does not fit the case exactly, because most “colour-blind” eyes can distinguish three colours, and, like Dalton, they see differences between red, yellow, and blue : so that after all the term; “colour-blindness” is perhaps the best that have been proposed.

It therefore appears that the term, colour-blindness, was not invented on the fly and there is no evidence to support its existence before Dalton had published his paper in 1794.

First Recorded Instances

The simplicity of colour blindness, as an English expression, might lead one to imagine it already existed in the early 19th century. Unfortunately, there are no traces of colo[u]r blindness recorded by Google Books between 1700 and 1840. The three dates mentioned in the link are all errors. The first snippet dated 1766, is clearly an OCR error. The second, The Edinburgh Review: Or Critical Journal - Volume 207 was printed in 1908. And the third from The Nautical Magazine, Volume 50, was not printed in 1832 but in 1881.

I repeated the procedure with colour blind covering the same period, among the many false positives I found the following instance from Extracts from Longman's Magazine - Page 161, which appears to be dated 1833. However, it has been pointed out by Sven Yargs (in the comments) that the correct date is 1889.

Notwithstanding, the excerpt is noteworthy because it highlights one of the major drawbacks of being colorblind, namely the impaired ability to interpret railway signals.

A man who is colour-blind is, by necessity, prohibited from taking charge of railway signals; yet over and over again we see youths whose emotional natures are quite as strong a bar to some calling or profession—such a profession as mine, for instance — forced into the selected profession, to endure a martyrdom for life, with not one moment of chance for distinction, or for anything more than the qualified performance of duties which are a daily cross and a daily sorrow.

In fact, many English texts published after 1840 mention colour blindness in connection with engineers and railway signals.

Signal colours were first investigated scientifically and with respect to colour blindness in 1855 by Dr. G. Wilson of Edinburgh. He concluded that red and green were poor choices, because: (1) red in shade tended to black; (2) red and green were complementary and did not contrast strongly, and each was the fatigue colour of the other; and (3) about 1 in 50 males could not distinguish them, especially in dim light.
Early Railway Signals

In conclusion, the expression “colour-blind” seems not to have been inspired by German, I found not a shred of evidence in support of this idea, it was instead a neologism created by the Scotsman, physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and inventor Sir David Brewster (1781 – 1868).

Jan Dirk Blom A Dictionary of Hallucinations
enter image description here

  • Good original research and a very solid answer—well done. – Sven Yargs Jul 7 '16 at 16:19
  • @SvenYargs thank you for your gentle corrections, you should have left your comments, they warned visitors not to trust Google Books dates blindly... – Mari-Lou A Jul 7 '16 at 16:23

To add to Sven Yargs' excellent answer:

English shares with German the willingness to form new words and phrases by combining existing words from the language (though certainly German is the leader in this regard). Thus, rather than, say, coining a new word using Latin and Greek roots (especially given that those languages are unfamiliar to the vast majority of English speakers), the tendency is to form words by combining, say, "color" and "blindness".

There is no "language society" or some such that must certify such formations, but rather the only "test" of their validity is whether they are used by a significant number of people. "Color blindness" passed this test.

  • +1 Just because the answer was not that bad to get this much downvote. And if it is not a good answer, there has to be comment explaining how to improve the Q or at least why it is not a good answer. – haha Jan 12 '17 at 23:03

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