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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

In the pink

In the past few weeks, I've been revelling in the profusion of pinks in my garden. You may be thinking that these mini- carnations are called this because they are pink in colour (well, except for the white ones...) but in fact the colour is named for the flower rather than vice versa, and the story is quite complicated.

The Anglo-Saxons didn't have a word for pink, and probably didn't even conceive of it as a separate colour, just as a lighter shade of red. They could use rosen (of the colour of a rose) on occasion, but this did not seem to designate a specific pale red colour.

Under the influence of French, by the 14th century "rose" was being used for what we would now call pink, as is the case in most European languages (although roses can be red or yellow or white, as well as pink!) But roses got  quite a lot of bad publicity in late 15th-century England, beset from 1455 to 1487 by a  power struggle between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. The first Tudor king, Henry VII, who seized power at the end of the period, used the Lancastrians' emblem of a red rose and the Yorks' white rose in his propaganda emphasizing how strife-ridden and unstable the 30 years preceding his beneficent orderly reign  had been. 

Whether or not this bad rap for roses set the stage for a new word for the colour is hard to say, but about 100 years later, English speakers looked to another flower to name this colour, and "pink" started its ascendancy over "rose", in spite of the fact that another word "pink" was used at the time for a greenish-yellow pigment (just to be really confusing!)

Pinks had been around for a few centuries under the name "gillyflower", a corruption of the French word girofle (clove, because of their clove-like scent). In the 1500s, people started to call them "pinks" because of their fringed petals, which look as if someone has taken the pinking shears to them.
This verb "pink" (make decorative cuts in fabric) had been around for a few centuries, possibly dating back to Old English in the form "ping", which is derived from the Latin pungere (prick, puncture).

So, a long and circuitous route from a Latin word meaning "pierce" to our everyday word for a pale red.
And a warning: if you read about the "pink" jackets traditionally worn by the British while fox hunting, remember they're not pink at all but scarlet. They may have been originally made by a tailor called Thomas Pink, though this has not been proved. Perhaps it's a case like slang, where the in-group knows the meaning of the word and outsiders are revealed by their ignorance.

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  1. Have wondered for almost 65 years why pinking shears so called. Nice to have the answer dropped coin-in-slot into my lazy mind!

  2. Hi,

    I would not have guessed the English "pink" had anything to do with our "a împunge" (= to pierce).

    I wonder if "to impinge" is related to this ...


  3. impinge is from a different Latin word,
    imping-ĕre to push, strike, drive (at or into), thrust, strike, or dash (against), < pangĕre to fix, drive in


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.