The rainbow is a beautiful and captivating natural phenomenon that has inspired awe and wonder throughout human history. When sunlight interacts with water droplets in the atmosphere, the light refracts and scatters to produce the multicolored arc we know as a rainbow. While the word “rainbow” is deeply ingrained in our vocabulary, there are actually many other terms that are used to describe this meteorological occurrence. Examining the various names for rainbows across cultures and languages provides insight into how different peoples have made sense of and expressed reverence for this stunning display in the sky.
The word “rainbow” has its origins in Old English. The first part of the word, “rain,” refers to the fact that rainbows are created by sunlight shining on rain drops or other precipitation. The second half of the word, “bow,” is descriptive of the arc shape that rainbows typically display.
So the word “rainbow” literally translates to “rain bow” or “bow produced by rain.” This compound word clearly captures the underlying mechanism behind the visual phenomenon. Other Germanic languages like German (“Regenbogen”) and Dutch (“regenboog”) also employ words that literally mean “rain bow.”
Alternative Names in Other Languages
While the English word “rainbow” has a certain logic to it, names for this phenomenon in other languages impart different meanings and insights. Here are some of the more distinctive and poetic alternative rainbow names from around the world:
In Mandarin Chinese, a rainbow is called 彩虹 (cǎi hóng), which literally translates to “colorful rainbow.” The emphasis on the “colorful” aspect poetically captures the rainbow’s visual splendor and vibrancy.
The Japanese word for rainbow is 虹 (niji), which conveys the idea of something beautiful yet fleeting and ephemeral. This name hints at the transience of rainbows, which quickly fade as conditions change.
Koreans use the word 무지개 (mujigae) when talking about rainbows. This literally translates to “rainbow stripes,” elegantly evoking the rainbow’s banded structure.
The Swahili name for a rainbow, upinde wa mvua, translates to “bow of rain” which directly parallels the English “rainbow.” However, Swahili also uses another term, utosini mbali, meaning “rain’s seven colors,” highlighting the rainbow’s distinctive color spectrum.
Old Irish texts referred to rainbows as boga bhrisce, meaning “celestial arch.” This name suggests a regal, heavenly quality attached to seeing a rainbow.
The Hawaiian term for a rainbow is ‘Anuenue’ which means “rainbow” or “rain arch.” The word is derived from Polynesian languages and references the rainbow’s arch-like shape.
In the Bible’s Book of Genesis, the rainbow is called קֶשֶׁת (keshet) in Hebrew, meaning simply “bow.” This minimalist name emphasizes the rainbow’s archery-bow shape.
|Language||Word for Rainbow||Literal Translation|
|Japanese||虹||Fleeting, ephemeral thing|
|Swahili||upinde wa mvua||Bow of rain|
|Swahili||utosini mbali||Rain’s seven colors|
|Irish||boga bhrisce||Celestial arch|
Mythology and Folklore
Beyond the diversity of linguistic rainbow names, these meteorological phenomena have played important roles in the myths, legends, and folklore of cultures worldwide. Examining some of these traditions provides more nuance around alternate rainbow names and symbolism across human societies.
In Greek myths, the goddess Iris was said to travel on rainbows as she delivered messages from the gods to mortals down on Earth. The ancient Greek word for rainbows was “Iris.” So rainbows were seen as sacramental bridges used by divine messengers.
Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavata Purana tell of Indra, the god of rain and thunderstorms, who created the rainbow by stretching his celestial bow across the sky. Thus, Hindu tradition saw the rainbow as a divine battle bow.
In Tibetan Buddhist teachings, rainbows represent the union of wisdom and compassion. Rainbows are seen as natural embodiments of the ideals that Buddhists strive for through spiritual practice.
Native American Folklore
Some Native American tribes have traditional stories of serpents that dwell in bodies of water and produce rainbows. Among the Lakota people, the rainbow is associated with fertility and renewal, while Navajo legends connect the rainbow to the slaying of sea monsters.
In the Bible’s Book of Genesis, God creates the rainbow as a sign of his covenant with Noah after the Great Flood. The Quran also recounts how Allah placed the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of peace and prosperity.
West African Folklore
In some African folk tales, the rainbow is depicted as a multi-colored serpent. According to stories of the Ashanti people, the rainbow serpent only appears when it is going to drink water, which links the rainbow to rainfall and rivers.
While cultural and mythological accounts of the rainbow provide a humanistic perspective, science offers a different vantage point based on physics, meteorology, and optics. From this analytical lens, rainbows are understood as optical phenomena caused by the refraction, dispersion, and reflection of sunlight in water droplets.
Some researchers also make a technical distinction between rainbows and other optical displays including:
Iridiscence: Colored patterns caused by diffraction rather than refraction. These often appear on compact disks or soap bubbles.
Fog bow: Similar to a rainbow but produced by smaller cloud and fog particles rather than rain. Also have less distinct color separation.
Glories: Optical rings that appear around shadows cast on clouds opposite the sun. Unlike rainbows, glories surround the antisolar point.
Halos: Colored or white rings that encircle the sun or moon, caused by ice crystals in cold cirrus clouds. Rainbows differ in needing sunlight and rain.
So in scientific taxonomy, rainbows refer specifically to multicolored arc formations stemming from the refraction and dispersion of light through sunlit rain drops. Related optical effects may share certain features but arise from different mechanisms.
Rainbows by Other Names
While most world languages include words that literally translate to “rain bow” in reference to rainbows, examining other linguistic and cultural interpretations of this phenomenon opens up a colorful spectrum of alternate rainbow names and symbolism. From the Hawaiian notion of the “rain arch” to the Greek personification as the goddess Iris, rainbows have been a source of imagination, storytelling, and reverence across human history. Even in the modern scientific age, the rainbow remains an object of fascination and renewed investigation.