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Why do they say jet black?


The phrase “jet black” is commonly used to describe something that is a very deep, dark black color. But where does this phrase come from and why is the word “jet” used to describe this intense black color?

In short, “jet black” refers to the deep, dark black color of jet – a dense, semi-precious black stone. The word “jet” itself is derived from the French word for the same stone – “jaiet”. So describing something as “jet black” is comparing its color to the very dark black color of jet stone.

Some key facts about the origins and usage of “jet black”:

What is jet?

Jet is a dense, black fossilized material that was often used in jewelry and decorative items. Here are some details:

  • Jet is made from fossilized wood that has been buried under high pressure for millions of years.
  • It began forming over 180 million years ago during the Jurassic period.
  • The largest jet deposits are found in Whitby in Yorkshire, England.
  • Jet is difficult to carve but can be polished to a smooth, shiny finish.
  • Ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilizations used jet for jewelry, amulets and decorative items.

So essentially, jet is a very dark black material that has been prized for its color and used in decorative objects for thousands of years. This makes it a fitting reference point for describing the deepest, darkest black.

What does “jet black” mean?

When something is described as “jet black” it means:

  • The color is a very deep, dark, dense black.
  • There is no lightness, gray or brown tones – just pure black.
  • The color resembles polished jet stone.
  • It’s blacker than black – the deepest black you can imagine.

So “jet black” indicates an intense, pure black with no other colors mixed in. Think of the blackest black paint, the color of polished onyx or obsidian stone, or the deepest black ink. That’s “jet black.”

When is “jet black” used?

The phrase “jet black” has been in use since at least the early 1800s to describe the darkest black shades. Here are some common uses:

  • Describing hair – “her jet black hair.”
  • Describing eyes – “his piercing jet black eyes.”
  • Describing clothes or fabric – “the jet black dress.”
  • Describing paints, dyes, inks – “jet black ink.”
  • Describing stones and minerals – “jet black obsidian.”
  • Describing an absence of light – “a jet black night.”

So “jet black” can describe anything that is deeply and purely black. It’s used for dramatic emphasis when just saying “black” doesn’t convey the right depth of color.

Where does the phrase “jet black” come from?

Now that we’ve covered the meaning, let’s look at the origins of the phrase “jet black” and how it became so commonly used:

Jet stone

As mentioned, “jet” refers to the dense black fossilized wood that was used since ancient times for jewelry and decorations. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first reference to “jet” meaning the black stone dates back to 1400 AD.

Descriptive phrase

The use of the phrase “jet black” to describe color seems to have come shortly after jet stone itself was named. One of the earliest literary uses of “jet black” is in the novel St. Clair of the Isles by Elizabeth Helme in 1802:

“His jet-black eyes and sable hair proclaimed the offspring of the burning sun.”

So by the early 1800s, using “jet black” to describe deeply black eyes, hair, clothing, etc was a set descriptive phrase.

French origins

Interestingly, the word “jet” is likely derived from the French word “jaiet” meaning the black stone. This French word seems to have been in use since the 13th century and itself comes from the Latin “gagates” – meaning a stone found in Gages, Lycia.

So “jet black” has French and Latin roots linking back to the prized black stone itself.

Common usage

By the mid-19th century, “jet black” was in common usage in English literature. Famous authors like Emily Bronte used phrases like “jet black curls” and “jet black eyes” in their novels.

The dramatic and vivid nature of the phrase meant its popularity persisted through the 20th century and up to modern times. So the unique properties of the black jet stone helped create this enduring color descriptor.

What other phrases describe deep black?

The English language has many ways to say deep, dark black. Here are some common alternatives and how they compare:

Phrase Meaning
Pitch black Deeply black, like pitch or tar
Ebony Black wood color
Raven black Black as a raven’s feathers
Onyx black Black like onyx stone
Sable black Black fur color

Some key points:

  • “Pitch black” is used similarly to “jet black” – to evoke deep, complete blackness.
  • “Ebony” and “sable” refer to black animal furs or woods.
  • “Raven black” poetically compares the color to a raven’s feathers.
  • “Onyx black” relates the color to the rich black of onyx stone.

But “jet black” remains one of the most evocative phrases for describing the deepest and most intense black shades.

Is “jet black” politically correct?

Because “jet black” refers to the dense black stone rather than anything to do with people or race, it’s generally considered a completely non-offensive term.

Some key considerations around “jet black” and political correctness:

  • It has no racial connotations – it’s simply describing an intense black color.
  • The phrase has been in use since long before debates over political correctness.
  • It would only potentially cause issue if used in an intentionally racialized way, which is very uncommon.
  • Some style guides still advise using it carefully or avoiding it.
  • Alternative phrases like “pitch black” avoid any issues.

So in summary – when used in its traditional sense as a color descriptor, “jet black” is non-problematic. But some writers still prefer to avoid potential confusion by using a substitute phrase.


In conclusion, the phrase “jet black” has an interesting history dating back to the prized black jet stone used in ancient times. It entered the English language as a vivid descriptor for the deepest black shades without any lightness. While not inherently offensive, some alternate phrases like “pitch black” avoid any potential racial overtones. However, when used traditionally as a color term, “jet black” remains an evocative and non-controversial way to describe the most intense blacks. The unique properties and history of the jet stone gave us this lasting color expression.