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What are the ancient words for white?

What are the ancient words for white?

The color white has long held symbolic meaning in cultures around the world. In ancient times, the rarity and purity of the color white imbued it with sacred qualities. Across different languages and civilizations, ancient words for the color white reflected its exalted status. Understanding the early terms for white provides insight into how our ancestors perceived this unique shade.

Etymological Origins of ‘White’

The English word ‘white’ has its roots in Proto-Germanic, Proto-Indo-European, and ultimately Proto-Indo-European origins. The Proto-Germanic ‘hwitaz’ and Proto-Indo-European ‘kweitos’ are the earliest reconstructable words for the color white in these ancestral languages. ‘Hwitaz’ is also the origin of ‘hwit’ in Old English, which became ‘hwit’ or ‘hwite’ in Middle English, before arriving at the Modern English ‘white’. These ancient words capture the brightness, radiance and purity embodied by the color white.

Ancient Greek Words for White

In Ancient Greek, the principal words for white were ‘leukos’ and ‘argos’. ‘Leukos’ referred to bright, shining white, like fresh snow or bleached linen. It contained connotations of luminosity and sacredness. ‘Argos’ denoted a glossy, shimmering white, like white horses or white arms. It was associated with divine qualities. Both terms highlighted the brilliant, flawless nature of white.

Ancient Greek Meaning
Leukos Bright, shining white
Argos Glossy, shimmering white

Latin Words for White

In Latin, ‘albus’ was the primary word for the color white. Derived from the Proto-Indo-European root ‘albh-‘, meaning ‘white’ or ‘shining’, ‘albus’ referred to pale white or whiteness. Its definitions encompassed bright white as well as matte, dull white shades. Related Latin terms included ‘candens’, meaning ‘glowing white’; ‘niveus’, meaning ‘snowy white’; and ‘lacteus’, meaning ‘milky white’. These words expressed white in terms of its soft glow or association with white substances like snow and milk.

Latin Meaning
Albus White, whiteness
Candens Glowing white
Niveus Snowy white
Lacteus Milky white

Ancient Sanskrit Words for White

In Sanskrit, the ancient liturgical language of Hinduism, ‘shukla’ was the primary term for white and light shades. Derived from the word ‘shukra’, meaning ‘semen’ or ‘brightness’, ‘shukla’ embodied luminous white hues. Other Sanskrit words for white included ‘aruna’, denoting the reddish white shades of dawn; ‘avadat’, meaning dazzling white; and ‘sitah’, connoting cool, serene white. These rich vocabularies reflected the symbolic and spiritual significance of white in Hindu mythology.

Sanskrit Meaning
Shukla White, light
Aruna Dawn-white
Avadat Dazzling white
Sitah Cool, serene white

Ancient Chinese Words for White

In Ancient Chinese, the primary character for white was ‘bái’, pronounced similarly to ‘bye’. It represented the white color as well as related meanings of purity and brightness. Other relevant Chinese terms included:

– ‘dàn’, meaning ‘pale white’ or ‘light white’.

– ‘bó’, meaning ‘thin white’ or ‘weak white’.

– ‘hăi’, meaning ‘greyish white’.

Specific combinations with ‘bái’ also emerged, like ‘yuèbái’ for ‘moon white’ and ‘xuěbái’ for ‘snow white’. Chinese philosophy held deep meaning in the whiteness of the moon and snow.

Ancient Chinese Meaning
Bái White
Dàn Pale white
Thin white
Hăi Greyish white
Yuèbái Moon white
Xuěbái Snow white

Ancient Egyptian Words for White

In the Ancient Egyptian language, ‘hedj’ and ‘shedj’ were words that described the white color. ‘Hedj’ referred specifically to white linen, one of the most promiment white materials in Egyptian culture. ‘Shedj’ had broader meanings of illuminating white light or pure white metals like silver. Other related terms included ‘tehen’, meaning ‘shining white’; ‘kem’, meaning ‘black and white’; and ‘sehedj’, meaning ‘bleached white’. White held divine connotations, associated with purity and sacredness.

Ancient Egyptian Meaning
Hedj White linen
Shedj Illuminating white
Tehen Shining white
Kem Black and white
Sehedj Bleached white

Ancient Hebrew Words for White

In Biblical Hebrew, the primary word for white was ‘lavan’, meaning ‘white’ or ‘to make white’. The term ‘chivvar’ referred to pale white or whiteness. ‘Lavan’ frequently appeared in the Torah and other Hebrew texts to describe white objects, animals, materials and skin colors. It symbolized purity, holiness and innocence in Judaism. Related words like ‘tzach’ and ‘chagav’ connoted dazzling, bright white. White held spiritual meaning in ancient Hebrew culture and language.

Ancient Hebrew Meaning
Lavan White
Chivvar Pale white
Tzach Dazzling white
Chagav Bright white


Across ancient civilizations, from Greek and Latin to Hebrew and Sanskrit, the color white bore sacred meanings and richer vocabularies than today. Words like ‘leukos’, ‘albus’ and ‘shukla’ expressed whiteness in terms of brightness, purity and divinity. They remind us that white has long served as a profound symbol in human cultures. The diverse ancient lexicons for white provide a window into how our ancestors perceived this unique color.