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Brown is the new white

vides ut alta stet nive candidum


begins Horace’s famous ode (I.9) with a vision of bright white (candidum) mountain swathed in deep snow. The Latin verb candeo, its inceptive candesco and compound incandesco all describe dazzling, glowing white or the colour of flames: just so, the English incandescent can be luminous as well as fiery. Latin candidus also meant clear, open and candid as borrowed by English (cf. candour from L candor) but candidates for election were named after their bright white togas, not for their openness (surprised?). A candela was the L equivalent of a candle which could be held in a candelabrum, a word we borrowed directly - and indirectly as chandelier - from Latin.

So far, so bright and perhaps a little red and white. But brown?

There’s another white in Latin (albus) which we find in English albino, albumen (egg white) and album (book with white pages or borrowed from the white tablet used in Roman times?). Albatross looks quite white, but is actually a borrowing from Portuguese alcatraz (pelican/frigate bird): alb- presumably meant more or sounded better than alc-. Alb, a white linen robe, used to be aube (the French spelling), and similarly Medieval Latin alburnus (shining, whitish) had the alternative spelling auburnus from which comes our auburn, originally blonde, yellowish-brown, then reddish-brown.

Did white thus become the new brown? 

Or is that enough obfuscation?

About the author

Alan Beale

Alan Beale is a member of The Lit & Phil and runs one of our regular Latin classes.

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