Telling black from white

Author of The Etymologicon Mark Forsyth explains why black could be white - and up could be down

Etymologists have a terrible time distinguishing black from white. You’d think that the two concepts could be kept apart, but that wasn’t how the medieval English thought about things. They were a confusing bunch of people and must have had a terrible time ordering coffee. The Oxford English Dictionary itself feebly admits that: ‘In Middle English it is often doubtful whether blac, blak, blacke, means “black, dark,” or “pale, colourless, wan, livid”.’

Chess would have been a confusing game; but on the plus side, racism must have been impractical.

Utterly illogical though all this may sound, there are two good explanations. Unfortunately, nobody is quite sure which one is true. So I shall give you both.

Once upon a time, there was an old Germanic word for burnt, which was black, or as close to black as makes no difference. The confusion arose because the old Germanics couldn’t decide which colour burning was. Some old Germans said that when things were burning they were bright and shiny, and other old Germans said that when things were burnt they turned black.

The result was a hopeless monochrome confusion, until everybody got bored and rode off to sack Rome. The English were left holding black, which could mean either pale or dark, but slowly settled on one usage. The French also imported this useless black word. They then put an N in it and later sold it on to the English as blank. Leaving us with black and blank as opposites.

The other theory (which is rather less likely, but still good fun) is that there was an old German word black which meant bare, void and empty. What do you have if you don’t have any colours?

Well, it’s hard to say really. If you close your eyes you see nothing, which is black, but a blank piece of paper is, usually, white. Under this theory, blankness is the original sense and the two colours – black and white – are simply different interpretations of what blank means.

And, just prove to the point even more irritatingly, bleach comes from the same root and can mean to make pale, or any substance used for making things black. Moreover, bleak is probably just a variant of bleach and used to mean white.

Such linguistic nonsenses are a lot more common than you might reasonably have hoped. Down means up. Well, okay, it means hill, but hills are upward sorts of things, aren’t they? In England there’s a range of hills called the Sussex Downs. This means that you can climb up a down.

Down, as in fall down, was originally off-down, meaning off-the-hill. So if an Old Englishman fell off the top of a hill he would fall off-down. Then lazy Old Englishmen started to drop the word off. Rather than saying that they were going off-down, they just started going down. So we ended up with the perplexing result that the downs are up above you, and that going downhill is really going downdown.

But we must get back to blanks and lotteries.

Once upon a time, a lottery worked like this. You bought a ticket and wrote your name on it. Then you put it into the name jar. Once all the tickets had been sold, another jar was filled up with an equal number of tickets, on some of which were written the name of a prize.

The chap running the lottery would pull out two tickets, on from the name jar and one from the prize jar. Thus, way back in 1653, the court of King James I was described as:

A kind of Lotterie, where men that venture much may draw a Blank, and such as have little may get the Prize.

Blank lottery tickets were thus the financial opposite of blank cheques (if you’re British) and blank checks (if you’re American), although as we shall see, the American spelling is older.

The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth is published by Icon.