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How did colours get invented?

How did colours get invented?

The perception and use of color is an important part of human history. But how did colors come to be identified and named? The origins of color terminology provide insight into how different cultures have perceived and categorized the world around them.

The Science of Color Perception

Human color perception arises from the way our eyes and brains process light. Objects reflect or emit certain wavelengths of light that our eyes detect through specialized photoreceptor cells called cones. There are three types of cones, each responding maximally to either short (blue), medium (green), or long (red) wavelengths of light.

Our brains combine and compare signals from the different cones to distinguish a wide range of colors. However, the specific colors we perceive depend on how our visual systems categorize the continuous spectrum of wavelengths. Across cultures and history, color categories have been based on perceptual similarity, symbolic meaning, and usefulness in describing the environment.

Early Color Classification Systems

Some of the earliest evidence of color terminology comes from Bronze Age texts from China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. These ancient cultures already had words identifying colors like red, green, and yellow. However, their color lexicons were much simpler than modern ones.

For example, ancient Chinese texts use the terms red, white, black, green, and yellow. Ancient Egyptian texts describe three color categories: red/warm colors, green/cool colors, and white/bright colors. The ancient Greeks categorized colors into light and dark shades.

Early color words were often based on observable properties like fire (red) or plants (green). Bright and dark could distinguish shades of color based on lightness. Black and white represented opposite extremes as abstract color concepts.

Complex Color Terminology

More complex color lexicons developed within certain trades and professions. Dyers, painters, and artisans used expanded terminology to describe subtle shades and mixtures of colors. For example, Old English texts on dyeing from the 7th century AD contain specialized terms for different shades of red, purple, green, and brown.

However, these early specialized lexicons were limited in scope. It was not until the late Middle Ages and Renaissance that a wider vocabulary of color terms emerged in European languages. New words entered usage to describe colors like orange and pink alongside shades of blue, grey, beige and pastels.

Color Etymological Origin
Orange Sanskrit word nāraṅga meaning orange tree, introduced to Europe in the 16th century
Pink Derived from the flower name pink in the 17th century
Lilac Borrowed from French lilas in the 18th century, derived from lilac flowers
Magenta Invented name referring to 1859 Battle of Magenta

The proliferation of color terminology reflected increased trade, scientific progress, and wider availability of paint pigments. Cultural exchange through global trade networks spread words for exotic colors like indigo, saffron, azure, and carmine.

The Effect of Technology

New scientific understandings also expanded color lexicons. Theories of light and optics led to wider recognition of the visible spectrum. In the 17th century, Isaac Newton demonstrated that sunlight could be split into its component colors using a prism.

Newton identified seven distinct colors – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. His color wheel helped popularize those names as the foundation for understanding color.

In the 19th century, new synthetic pigments massively expanded the availability of colorful paints and dyes. These vibrant materials were given newly invented names like magenta, viridian, and cobalt.

Modern Color Lexicons

By the early 20th century, most Western languages recognized a basic vocabulary of between eleven to fifteen color terms: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple, grey and primary pastel variants.

However, differences remained across cultures. For example, Italian uses azzurro and blu to distinguish light and dark blue while Russian has separate words for dark blue (sinij) and light blue (goluboj). The Himba language of Namibia uses five colors while other languages like Bassa in Liberia distinguish dozens of colors.

The increased pace of globalization in the late 20th century led to the spread of a standardized basic English color terminology worldwide. Specialized lexicons still vary between professions, especially in the arts, color technology, and marketing.

The Importance of Color Names

While humans can perceive millions of distinct colors, color words help us identify and communicate about color. Terms for basic colors likely developed early in most cultures because they were useful and widely applicable.

More specialized color lexicons emerged gradually as cultures developed wider symbolic uses of color and needed to identify subtler variations for trade purposes. Today, standardized basic color terminology facilitates global communication, while specialized terms continue evolving within certain disciplines.

So in summary, color words were “invented” to describe perceptions of the world across cultures and history. As technology and knowledge expanded human color perception, the lexicon of color names also grew to reflect those advances.


Color terminology has developed over centuries based on human perception, culture, science and trade. Ancient cultures classified only basic colors but complex lexicons emerged in certain trades and professions. Scientific progress and technology allowed finer distinctions between shades while globalization led to some standardization of basic color terms across languages.

Color words remain vital for identifying and communicating subtle variations of hue and shade. The origins and evolution of color lexicons illustrate an important aspect of how different cultures have categorized and described their perception of the world.