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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 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 at 9:20
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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.

(www.africaresource.com)

  • 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. – Peter Shor Jan 23 at 12:27
  • @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 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 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. – Peter Shor Jan 23 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. – Peter Shor Jan 23 at 20:34
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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.

and

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 at 9:39
  • @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. – Peter Shor Mar 8 at 16:10

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