The color green has always been an important part of human life and culture. In nature, green is everywhere – from the grass, leaves, and trees to the emerald seas and lush forests. Many ancient cultures worshipped the verdant hues of nature and associated the color green with rebirth, growth, harmony, and fertility.
Throughout history, the word used to describe the color green in a language often reveals insights into the culture’s values and worldview. In Old English, the word for green offers a glimpse into how the ancient Germanic tribes of Britain viewed this vibrant color.
The Origins of Old English
Old English, also called Anglo-Saxon, is the earliest form of the English language. It was brought to Britain in the 5th century by Germanic settlers from modern-day Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. These tribes included the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Old English continued to evolve until the late 11th century when the Norman conquest introduced French and Latin influences.
As a West Germanic language derived from Ingvaeonic dialects, Old English shares similarities with Frisian, German, and Dutch. The Germanic origins of Old English had a strong impact on its vocabulary.
The Old English Word for Green
In Old English, the word for green was grēne. This was derived from the Proto-Germanic adjective *grōniz, which came from the root *grō- meaning “to grow, sprout.”
The Old English grēne had other spellings including grēn, grœ̄ne, and grēniġ. It was related to similar words in Old Frisian (grēne) and Old Saxon (grōni).
So in essence, the Old English term for green referenced the lush natural growth and verdant hues found in nature. The vibrant color was associated with living plants and vegetation.
The Evolution of the Word Green
After the Norman invasion of 1066, the English language evolved rapidly with the introduction of Norman French. While grēne remained in use, the word vert (from French verte) also entered English to mean green.
In Middle English, which emerged around 1200 AD, grene or green gradually became the standard term. Vert fell out of usage by the 14th century.
As Modern English developed, green retained its place as the common word for the color. The original Old English grēne simply evolved into the Modern English spelling green.
Here’s a brief timeline for the word green in English:
|Era||Word for Green|
|Middle English||grene, green|
|Early Modern English||green|
The Meaning and Symbolism of Green in Old English Times
What did the color green signify for the Anglo-Saxons? Here are some of the main symbolic associations for Old English grēne:
– Nature and fertility – As the color of plants, trees, and vegetation, green represented living growth and the fertile earth.
– Renewal and rebirth – The return of green in spring was a sign of renewal after the winter. Green symbolized starting afresh.
– Youth and inexperience – The greenness of new plants suggested youthfulness and immaturity. Calling someone “green” meant they were fresh, naive, or inexperienced.
– Hope and growth – The lush greenness of nature brought feelings of renewal and hope. It was the promise of future growth and prosperity.
– Envy and jealousy – The desire for the beauty of nature’s green could inspire envy in others. “Green with envy” was an Old English idiom.
– Toxicity and rot – Dark or muddy greens were associated with toxicity, mold, and decay. Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster” hinted at the darker connotations.
So in Old English times, grēne referenced both the positive and negative symbolic meanings found in the natural world. These associations between green and nature would continue to evolve in the English language.
Green Dyes, Pigments, and Paints in Anglo-Saxon England
Natural green dyes, pigments, and paints were important in Old English culture. People used them to add color to fabrics, manuscripts, painted objects, and architecture.
Some common sources for green dyes and pigments included:
– Celtic green – A bright green pigment made by boiling yellow Buckthorn berries in alum-rich soil. It was very durable.
– Malachite – A green copper carbonate mineral that was ground into a vivid green pigment powder and mixed with egg yolk as a paint.
– Verdigris – A blue-green pigment formed by the corrosion of copper. Anglo-Saxon scribes mixed it with egg for ink and paint.
– Chlorophyllin – A dye extracted from grass, leaves, moss and other greens in nature. It produced soft muted greens.
– Woad leaves – A popular dye among Celts and Anglo-Saxons derived from the Isatis tinctoria plant. It gave a nice teal green.
Green was also mixed with other pigments like yellow dyes from weld or ochre to produce deeper forest greens.
These organic green pigments were prominent in Old English artwork, fabrics, and illuminated manuscripts like the 7th century Lindisfarne Gospels. Mineral greens like malachite were reserved for luxury works.
Green in Old English Literature and Poetry
References to grēne frequently appeared in Old English poetry and texts. Here are some notable examples:
– In the epic poem Beowulf, grēne is used to describe the color of the sea, rings, armor, and the Greenland settlement.
– The 9th century riddle “Ic eom wunderlicu wiht” (“I am a wondrous creature”) refers to grēne growth: “ic growe ðær ic grēne stonde” (“I grow where I stand green”).
– In The Wanderer, an Old English poem found in the 10th century Exeter Book, grēne describes the bright green coloring of the earth after winter’s snow.
– In Judith, green emeralds are referenced as grēne gumena gestreon (“the green jewels of men”).
– The Old English Rune Poem associates the rune Gyfu with grēne growth in the phrase “grēne wȳd staþol” (“green wood estate”).
So grēne often symbolized the return of life, fertility and fortune in Old English poetry. It was frequently associated with nature.
The Usage of Grēne in Old English Prose
In Old English prose works and historical texts, grēne also commonly occurred in descriptions of nature, plants and greenish hues. For example:
– In translations of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, grēne describes the green gems and green grass during summer.
– In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, grēne appears in an entry about harvesting green crops during Easter.
– In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the monk Bede refers to grēne to depict green clothing.
– In medicinal texts and herbals, grēne denotes the green color of specific plants and their healing properties.
– In translations of the Bible into Old English, grēne is used over 75 times to depict verdant nature.
So grēne served an important function in Old English prose to convey the ubiquity of green hues in the world. It represented the herbal knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons.
The Old English Grēne in Place Names
Remaining Old English place names containing grēne provide clues to how the Anglo-Saxons perceived notable green places. Some examples include:
– Grendon – From grēne dūn meaning “green hill.” There are towns like this across England.
– Greenhithe – From grēne hyð meaning “green harbor.” This town in Kent was named for its green waterside meadows.
– Greens Norton – A village in Northamptonshire combining grēne with norton meaning “north enclosure.” Its name evokes greenness.
– Greensted – A village in Essex meaning “green place” from grēne stede. Some believe its first church was the Green Chapel of Arthurian legend.
These and other grēne place names reflect how the Anglo-Saxons labeled significant green spaces in their language and landscape. The verdant grēne places inspired their imagination and identity.
In Old English, the color green was described by the word grēne derived from the Proto-Germanic *grōniz meaning “to grow.” With its connections to nature and fertility, grēne occupied an important place in Anglo-Saxon culture and language.
The vibrant hue was seen everywhere in the green plants, fields, trees, and waters of England. Grēne referenced youth and renewal as well as toxicity and decay. It conveyed symbolic meaning in Old English poetry and prose.
While the spelling evolved over centuries, grēne remained the essential Old English term for green. Its persistence reflects the enduring significance of green in the English imagination and vocabulary. The verdant grēne was an integral part of the Anglo-Saxon worldview.