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Why is red called scarlet?

Why is red called scarlet?

Red is called scarlet because of the historical development of color terminology. Scarlet refers specifically to a bright, rich shade of red. The word derives from the Persian word “saqalat” meaning a type of cloth dyed red. Over time, scarlet became associated with a vivid red color used in fabrics, paints, and dyes. While red is the general term for the color occupying the long wavelength end of the visible spectrum, scarlet denotes a more specific, brilliant red with a slightly orange tinge.

The origins of the word “scarlet”

The word “scarlet” has its origins in the Persian word “saqalat.” This referred to a type of expensive wool cloth that was dyed a rich, bright red color using the kermes dye. Kermes is a red dye that comes from the dried bodies of the Kermes insects that live on oak trees in the Mediterranean region. It was highly prized in medieval times for producing a dazzling, luminous red color on wool and silk fabrics.

The word “saqalat” made its way via Arabic into Medieval Latin as “scarlatum” which referred to the scarlet cloth. By the early 13th century, the word entered Middle English as “scarlat” and “scarlote.” At this time, scarlet fabric was often worn by nobility and bishops, connoting luxury and status. Over time, the word “scarlet” became associated with the vivid red color itself rather than just the cloth.

The shades of scarlet

Shade Hex code
Scarlet #FF2400
Persian red #CC3333
Boston University red #C8102E

While scarlet refers to a red color with an orange tint, there are several shades of scarlet spanning the spectrum from more reddish to more orangey hues:

– Scarlet has a hex code of #FF2400, sitting between red and vermilion on the color wheel. It has a balance of orange and red tones but leans slightly towards the red.

– Persian red is a popular scarlet shade with a hex code of #CC3333. As the name suggests, it was brought from Persia to Europe. It sits closer to the orange section of the spectrum.

– Boston University red has a hex code of #C8102E. This is a blue-toned scarlet that sits on the more reddish end of scarlet shades. It is darker and richer than standard scarlet.

The range of scarlet shades demonstrates the flexibility of the term – while referring specifically to a bright, warm red, the exact hue can vary. Over history, different cultures and societies have produced their own unique shades of scarlet dyes and pigments.

Scarlet in nature

Scarlet colors are found in many plants, animals, and minerals in nature:

Scarlet color Found in
Vibrant red Cardinal birds, scarlet tanagers, poinsettias, strawberries, apples, cranberries
Orange-red Poppies, coral snakes, red foxes, rosehips, lychees
Blue-red Rubies, garnets, red jasper, bloodstone

Some examples include:

– Vibrant red scarlet shades are found in cardinal birds, scarlet tanagers, poinsettias, strawberries, apples, and cranberries.

– More orange-red scarlets occur in poppies, coral snakes, red foxes, rosehips, and lychees.

– Blue-tinted scarlets occur in gemstones like rubies, garnets, red jasper and bloodstone.

Scarlet covers the spectrum from cooler blue-based reds to fiery orange-reds. Animals, plants, and minerals all contribute diverse shades of this vivid color.

Scarlet in history

Culture Use of scarlet
Ancient Rome Scarlet accents on togas to denote elite status
Medieval Europe Scarlet clothing for nobility, cardinals, and bishops
Asia Scarlet colors associated with joy, celebration, and good fortune
Western fashion Scarlet Lipstick, scarlet accessories and accents

Scarlet has carried cultural significance across different civilizations:

– In Ancient Rome, scarlet accents on togas denoted elite status. Only Roman senators and victorious generals could wear togas with scarlet stripes.

– In Medieval Europe, scarlet clothing was reserved for nobility, cardinals, and bishops. It was a luxurious status symbol.

– In China, scarlet symbolized joy, celebration, and good fortune. Brides traditionally wore scarlet wedding dresses.

– In Western fashion, scarlet appears in makeup as iconic scarlet lipstick. It also livens up outfits as accents on clothes, shoes, and bags.

The vivid intensity of scarlet has made it historically prestigious and symbolic across cultures.

Scarlet in art

Painting Use of Scarlet
The Scarlet Letter Scarlet “A” letter on Hester’s dress
Portrait of Madame Matisse Scarlet background
A Boy with a Scarlet Macaw Vibrant red macaw

Scarlet is an important color in art:

– In The Scarlet Letter, the scarlet “A” worn by Hester Prynne against her black dress makes a striking visual contrast.

– Henri Matisse used vivid orange-red scarlet backgrounds in paintings like Portrait of Madame Matisse to create energy.

– John Singer Sargent depicted a brilliant red-orange scarlet macaw in his painting A Boy with a Scarlet Macaw, contrasting with the green foliage.

Many artists employ the eye-catching brilliance of scarlet to draw attention, create focal points, and communicate themes and emotions through their work.

Why scarlet stands out

There are several visual reasons why scarlet pops out and commands attention:

– It sits at the longest wavelength end of the visible spectrum, giving it innately high visual presence. Red hues naturally stand out to the human eye.

– The bright luminance of scarlet makes it seem even more light-reflecting and eye-catching.

– Slight warming from orange undertones gives scarlet a vivid energy lacking in plain red.

– High chroma and saturation of scarlet make it seem denser and more vivid.

– Scarlet creates strong contrast against dark, cool, or green backgrounds. This contrast draws the eye.

Thanks to its inherent long-wavelength light and rich chromaticity, scarlet leaps off the page or canvas and captures the viewer’s gaze. This explains its historical associations with prestige and importance.

Scarlet vs. crimson

Scarlet and crimson are both vivid reds, but with some subtle distinctions:

– Scarlet has an orange tint while crimson has a blue-purple tint.

– Scarlet is brighter while crimson is richer and deeper.

– The RGB values for scarlet are 255, 36, 0 while crimson’s are 220, 20, 60.

– Scarlet evokes urgency and excitement while crimson evokes sophistication.

– Scarlet derives from Persian while crimson traces to the Kermes insects used to dye crimson cloth.

– Scarlet is associated with warning and danger while crimson is associated with royalty and religion.

So while complementary, scarlet and crimson occupy different nuances in the red family – scarlet as a bright, urgent orange-red and crimson as a deep luxurious blue-red.

Associations with scarlet

Scarlet has many cultural associations, including:

– Warning and danger – stop signs, fire trucks

– Sin and scandal – The Scarlet Letter

– Sensuality and seduction – red lipstick, lingerie

– Prestige and luxury – medieval nobility clothing, cardinal robes

– Celebration and holidays – poinsettias, Santa Claus suits

– Passion and romance – red roses, Valentine’s hearts

– Urgency and alert – red alerts, sirens

– Strength and courage – Supergirl/Flash costumes, Gryffindor house

Both positive and negative associations stem from scarlet’s innate attention-grabbing properties. It amplifies whatever it describes.

Scarlet in linguistics

Some linguistic insights about the word “scarlet”:

– It comes from the Persian word “saqalat” referring to dyed red cloth

– It entered English via Medieval Latin as “scarlatum”

– It is an adjective describing the color red with an orange tinge

– It connotes richness and intensity more than plain “red”

– It is associated with fabric dye and pigmentation early in its history

– It evokes sophistication more than the word “crimson”

– It is considered a “hot” color along with red, orange, and yellow

Understanding the linguistic journey and meanings of “scarlet” sheds light on its nuanced place referring to vivid, orange-tinted reds.


In summary, red is called scarlet when referring to a bright, rich shade of red tinted with orange. The word “scarlet” traces back to Persian and Medieval times, originally describing a prized red dyed cloth. Over time, it became associated with the specific color itself rather than just the fabric. Scarlet sits on the border between red and orange, commanding attention and imbuing everything it describes with intensity. The interplay of red and orange tones gives scarlet a unique vibrancy fitting its cultural significance across history. Next time you see a scarlet color, consider the rich linguistic and artistic history it evokes.