I saw a news article on ABC news that made the claim that "if you go back far enough in time", the word 'black' used to mean 'white' and has the same origins as the French blanc and English bleach.

My searches suggest the closest match to this claim is the Proto-Indo-European *bhleg- ("to burn, gleam, shine, flash") - where 'gleam' and 'flash' could conceivably relate to a lighter colour, but given ancient Latin (flagrare) and Greek (phlegein) related words apparently also had the sense of something burnt, I'd be inclined to think this is not the most common use. Burnt, scorched stuff is black.

Etymology online states that: According to OED: "In ME. it is often doubtful whether blac, blak, blake, means 'black, dark,' or 'pale, colourless, wan, livid.' ", but then says: Used of dark-skinned people in Old English.

So, did 'black' actually ever mean 'white' (as opposed to colourless, or shiny), and is it related to blanc or is the claim in the news article a bit dubious?

  • The source 'bleak' (without color) includes both black and white (without hue).
    – AmI
    Jan 23, 2019 at 8:47
  • @AmI, yup, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was the intended reasoning. However imho the sentence should then read something along the lines of: "The word for black could originally mean an absence of colour which also includes white (and grey)." This is different to 'black' originally meant 'white'.
    – mcalex
    Jan 23, 2019 at 9:20

4 Answers 4


In Old English, at least according to the online Old English Translator, there were two words, the adjective blæc, which meant black and the adjective blac, which meant pale, shining, white, along with the related verb blæcan, which meant to whiten, bleach.

In Old English, "æ" and "a" were different letters, the first pronounced like the vowel in cat and the second, the vowel in father. These two vowels merged in Middle English, and presumably led to two homophones which meant, respectively, black and white. This certainly seems to be too confusing for both words to exist simultaneously, but maybe different dialects used one or the other, which would cause the confusion as to what blaec meant in Middle English.

The first led to the Modern English word black and the second to the Modern English words bleak and bleach.

How did these two words, pronounced nearly the same, end up in Old English? They seem to have both descended from the Indo-European stem bʰleg- meaning to burn, shine. (There is some controversy about this, but it seems quite plausible.) According to the OED, the adjective blæc is

cognate with Middle Dutch blac ink, Old Saxon blac ink (Middle Low German blak ink, black dye, black colour), Old High German blah- [...] ink

and the adjective blac is cognate with

Old Norse bleikr shining, white.

There is also

Middle Dutch blaken (Dutch blaken) to flame, to burn.

Putting these facts together, one can construct plausible etymologies:

bhleg-, meaning shine, burn → burn → burnt → ink (made with burnt carbon) → the color of ink = black.


bhleg-, meaning shine, burn → shining, white, pale.

So the black meaning seems to have come into English by way of the Saxons, and the white meaning by way of the Vikings, but both quite plausibly originated in the proto-Indo-European stem bʰleg-.

And in Middle English, it seems that blaec, blak, blake (Middle English spelling is notoriously inconsistent) could mean either black or white (although possibly in different dialects).

And blanc, blanche (French) indeed came from the same proto-European stem. So the news article seems completely correct.

  • 2
    It still seems more of a case of 'both black and white stem from a common root' rather than 'black used to mean white'.
    – mcalex
    Jan 25, 2019 at 9:39
  • 1
    @mcalex: As my answer said, in Middle English (hopefully in different dialects, although I have no way to know), blac could mean either black or white, so "black used to mean white" is at least technically correct. Mar 8, 2019 at 16:10
  • I recently read a comment to the effect that blanc was a later loan into romance. I kinda doubt it, and my own attempt at an explanation, that polished black or oily tar pitch reflect light, so shiny, would be doubtful as well. But, this answer is not comprehensive enough to cure the doubt either way.
    – vectory
    Jul 31, 2020 at 14:39
  • @vectory: blancus turns up in Late Latin, and as far as I can tell, nobody thinks it has ancestors in Classical Latin; their word for white was albus. But there's a Frankish word blank which it could have come from. Nov 2, 2020 at 12:47

The following source traces the history of the term black. The Old English blac was used, like blanc, to refer to a fair person, someone “devoid of colour”.

It was only in the 16th century that we saw the semantic change of blac to refer to something dark (night-colour):

The word ‘Black’ can be traced back to its proto Indo-European origins through the word ‘blac’ which meant pale, wan, colourless, or albino.

‘Blac’ was incorporated into Old French as Blanc, Italian and Spanish as Blanco, Bianca, Bianco, Bianchi.

In Old English “blac” person meant fair; someone devoid of colour, similar to the word “blanc” which still means white or fair person.

In Middle English the word was spelt as “blaec” same thing as the modern word “black”, only at that time, around 1051 AD, it still meant a fair skin, or so-called white person. The words “blacca” an Old/Middle English word still resonates with “blanke” the Dutch-Germanic term for white people of today.

It was not till the sixteenth century that the semantic broadening of black occured- both figurative connotations as well as literal.

From ‘blac, blake, bleaken, blaccen’ and their literal meaning ‘to bleach out or make white, blond or pale’ came the figurative meaning ‘to stain someones reputation, or defame’ or darken. Literally “blac” by that time came to mean night-like colour, dark. One can say a very dramatic shift indeed. It was also the era, when the Vandals and the Goths were busy writing themselves into history and writing out the European Mauros (melan-chros or melanin people) out of history.


  • 1
    This completely disagrees with what the OED says. The word black is related to the Middle Dutch blac, the Old Saxon blac, and the Old High Saxon blah-, all of which meant ink. It does indeed seem related to the word Middle English word blaec (from which we get bleach), but that wasn't a different spelling, it was a different word in Middle English. The common root (if there was one, the OED isn't sure) was much, much, older. Jan 23, 2019 at 12:27
  • 1
    @PeterShor — on the topic of the OED and "black", Simon Winchester, in his account of the writing of the OED (The Meaning of Everything) refers to "…the difficulties involved in dealing with specific words — such as the ‘terrible’ word black…". He doesn’t elaborate on why black was so terrible, but the impression given is that it wasn’t easy to establish its origin.
    – David
    Jan 23, 2019 at 14:02
  • It would be nice if you could extend your reference to an actual article page. That way one would be able to find out who the author was etc.
    – David
    Jan 23, 2019 at 14:30
  • I'm just looking at the OED. The adjective blæc (black) and the verb blǽcan (to bleach, whiten) seem to have been both present in Old English, and each of them has their own cognates in other Germanic languages. They all come from Proto-European bhleg, but it seems the split between the two meanings was much earlier than Middle English, as your source says. Jan 23, 2019 at 15:02
  • But of course, the OED is behind a pay wall, so I can't link to it. And this is long enough ago that we don't have any written evidence of the changes, but one plausible etymology is Proto-Indo-European bhleg-, meaning shine, burnburnburntink (made with burnt carbon) → the color of ink = black. And of course, finding etymologies from shinewhite is easy. Jan 23, 2019 at 20:34

I must have missed this when it first came out. Or maybe I was sick. Anyway, my apologies.
While the etymology of black in English is surprising in that it could refer to either white or black, as noted, it's not that surprising. English has always had dialects, and as it turns out, black is supposed to be a color.

I wrote a paper about this topic, among others, a long time ago. One of the phonosemantic senses of English words beginning with /bl/ is that of color/eye. A lot of color names start with bl-, as do many words having to do with lack of color, and a large number of words pertaining to eyes (they go together). Many of them have been mentioned here. Here's a list of simplex words beginning with bl-, showing their phonosemantic dimensions:

  1. Contained Fluid blood, bloom, blossom, bloat, blister, blimp
  2. Color/Eye blood, blush, blue, black, blank, blond, blot, blind
  3. Excess blight, blotch, blur, blind, blister, blotto, bleach, bleak

For comparison, here's a list of English simplex words beginning with /br/, from the same paper.
BR- words have a bit of leakage from BL- words

  1. Fluid brandy, brackish, bream, breeze, brook, breath
  2. Color brown, bright, brindle, bronze, bruise

but by and large their phonosemantic categories are quite different

  1. Human (Gender roles; all rather basic brawling, breeding, and feeding)
    • Male bris, brute, brawl, brag, brave, bruise, bray, brawn
    • Female breast, bride, bra, brat, bread, braid, brood, broth, broad
  2. 1-Dimensionality & Connectivity (in various combinations)
    • bristle, brush, briar, bridle, braid, broom, broad, brow, brim, break, bridge, bracket

This is just one thread in the glorious carpet of sound symbolism that lies over and under the words we use. More information available here.

  • 1
    I looked at the list you linked to and noted the way you have categorised "2 Color/Eye 26 blaze blot blind blip black blue blond bleach" It seems to me that the categorisation is not rigorous and basically relies on the word indicating something that is visible. It is hard to see how "colour" enters many of the words other than the fact that, like most things - they have some colour.
    – Greybeard
    Nov 2, 2020 at 0:33
  • As Aristotle put it, shape is the extension of color. If you're using a word to refer to something that is identifiable only or mostly by its color contrast with its visual context, you're referring to color. Not all words do; check out the non-leak words from BR-. Nov 2, 2020 at 16:15

The OED does distinguish two words, but the significant words are black and blake.

Under black there is

Cognate with Middle Dutch blac ink, Old Saxon blac ink (Middle Low German blak ink, black dye, black colour), Old High German blah- (only in blah-faro of the colour of ink.

further etymology uncertain; on formal grounds the word could be from a base related to the Germanic bases of blank adj. and the various forms discussed at blik v., (to shine, glisten or glitter) but since this would give an expected meaning ‘shining, white’ there is an obvious semantic difficulty; many have sought to resolve this by hypothesizing that the word meaning ‘black’ originated as a past participle (with the meaning ‘burnt, blackened’) of a verb meaning ‘to burn (brightly)’ derived from this base; this verb may perhaps be reflected by Middle Dutch blaken (Dutch blaken) to flame, to burn.

This latter seems desperately unlikely as there was already a word for burned/charred.

Additionally, there is the Old Icelandic blakkr, probably from the German "Blank" had the meaning of Blake.

Blake: 1 Pale, pallid, wan: implying deficiency or loss of colour, esp. of the ruddy hue of health, or of the full green of vegetation; of a sickly hue: thus passing on one side into ‘ash-coloured, livid,’ on another into ‘withered yellow,’

  1. Yellow. (Current (in 1887) in north England, from Cumbria to the Humber;)

1864 J. C. Atkinson Whitby Gloss. (at cited word) As blake as butter.

The spelling of black and blake in Old English overlapped and the OED notes that, other than by context, it is impossible to say which is which.

Thus we have


eOE tr. Bede Eccl. Hist. (Tanner) ii. xiii. 144 He..hæfde blæc feax [L. nigro

c1275 (▸?a1200) Laȝamon Brut (Calig.) (1978) l. 8832 Ane blake claðe.


Some early forms written blac, blak, also stand for blāk, blake,

c1275 (▸?a1200) Laȝamon Brut (Calig.) (1978) l. 9924 Ænne stunde he wes blac..while he wes reod.

It is thus most likely that there were two words, black and blake, and black came from the colour of ink, in much the same way as the colour orange comes from oranges.

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