Monday, December 22, 2008

Transitioning colors: glaucus

In Switzerland, when I was a pupil in elementary school, at the beginning of the school year we used to receive a small box of colored pencils in the main colors. The first years of school were spent learning the names and semiotics of those colors, as well as depicting our environment.

It was only later in elementary school that I learned a new color name, namely glauco. It was in a poem from our textbook, that we had to memorize.

The Zanichelli vocabulary translates glauco into English as blue-green, sea-green, glaucous. I guess the readers of this blog will be familiar with this color name from glaucoma, a condition of increased pressure within the eyeball, causing gradual loss of sight.

Today in Italian, glauco is associated most commonly with eye colors, because of the gray-green haze in the pupil.

Why am I counting this color among the transitioning colors? Over time, this color label is one that has changed quite dramatically in its association with a perceived color.

It starts with eye colors. My Sanesi classical Greek vocabulary from high school lists the following classical terms, in alphabetic order (apologies for the missing accents):

  • γλαυκιαω, to have an inflamed look
  • γλαυκ-ομματος, with inflamed eye
  • γλαυκος, scintillating, brilliant, shining || cerulean, azure
  • Γλαυκος, name of many characters
  • γλαυκοςτης, luster, shine of the eyes || cerulean color
  • γλαυκο-χρως, of azure color, of olive and pale color
  • γλαυκ-ωπις, of the shining, brilliant, cerulean eyes

In summary the classical use was for the shining color of eyes, mostly light blue, for example the color of Athene's eyes (glaukopsis). However, in the Homeric epics it has been used also for dark blue. Strangely, γλαυκο-χρως has been used also for olive and pale colors.

This strange use might at first explain why then in the later Middle Ages the meaning of the derived Latin term glaucus changed dramatically from blue-gray to yellow. Instead, I would like to speculate here that it might be connected to the loss of diphthongs as Latin became vulgarized.

In my Campagnini-Carboni classic Latin vocabulary from middle school I find these two definitions:

  • cærúleus, cerulean, azure, turquoise, dark; cærula cæli, or simply cærula, the azure, the azure sky
  • cerula, piece of wax

As you see, as the diphthongs were dropped with the vulgarization of Latin, cerulean blue might have become the color of wax. Indeed, Roger Bacon (~1214-1292) used glaucitas to refer to yellowness and ceruleus (wax color) as a yellow color falling between glaucus and citrinus (yellow and orange, respectively).

In the 14th century, Theodoric of Freiburg used glaucus with the same meaning. But then, in the mid-16th century, Scaliger (1557) put it back in the blue category, where it still was in the beginning of the 17th century with Francois d'Aguilon. (This data from Kuehni and Schwarz, Color Ordered, p. 8.)

If the label purple changed as a consequence of the collapse of a major civilization, the label glaucus might have been done in by an overworked or sloppy monk. In this case, γλαυκο-χρως used for olive and pale colors can be a medieval mistake rather than a genuine classical Greek color label.

Make sure, you dot your is and cross your ts, and watch out for those pesky diphthongs!