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There are many different words for colours in Latin, but it's not easy to tell what kind of colour was exactly meant by each word. Do we know what different colour words meant? In particular, is there a source that lists Latin colour words and describes their use in detail? I would prefer an online source, but a printed one is fine if it is available.

Dictionary entries for colours give a good idea of the colours implied by a given word, but I would like more in-depth information. For example, I don't only want a list of possible translations of caeruleus (I can readily find it my dictionary), but a list of things Romans considered caeruleus, to get a better idea of what the word meant. (Please don't explain what the word caeruleus means; what I am looking for is a general source.)

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    This isn't too detailed, but it gives some better descriptions for certain colors than other dictionaries I've seen. For example, fulvus is defined as "tawny, lion-colored" - meaning that it would be used to describe a lion. – HDE 226868 Feb 27 '16 at 13:57
  • The source given by @HDE226868 list colours in Modern Latin (and specifically in the dialect of biologists. Is there an overview of the colour in Classical Latin as well? – jk - Reinstate Monica Feb 27 '16 at 22:23
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    I would like to add something to @HDE226868 : William T. Stearn's book Botanical Latin contains an extensive treatment of Latin colour terms – there's a dedicated 24-page chapter for describing subtle colour distinctions for use in botanical taxonomy. This is not „classical Latin“ in the strict sense; it builds on classical Latin to provide better-defined colour distinctions. This chapter also contains references to classical Latin colour surveys. – kmlyvens Mar 1 '16 at 8:30
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    There is interesting chapter in The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius (Loeb) Book II. XXVI - "Discourse of Marcus Fronto and the philosopher Favorinus on the varieties of colours and their Greek and Latin names: and incidentally, the nature of the colour "spadix"." – Aili J. Jan 25 at 13:49
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This might not be the best question to ask for this format chiefly because there are so many color words in Latin, and their meanings are not always as simple and exact as English would have you believe.

For one, "basic colors" is a modern categorization, though it does have its roots in ancient Aristotelian thought. See this paper if you have access to it.

Interestingly, a fun little study was conducted by an undergradate at UNC Greensboro—Emily Gering, who published the study as "Diachronic Trends in Latin's Basic Color Vocabulary," published in the student journal Explorations (link).

A fuller study can be found in Rachael Goldman's 2011 dissertation Tinturae Romanorum: Social and Cultural Constructions of Color-Terms in Roman Literature. If you have a good library or access to ILL, do make sure to grab this one. She is a historian, so there is plenty of social context of color (which is inseparable from understanding the color's precise hue). She also provides an exhaustive appendix for your own perusal.

NEW: A BMCR review just popped up on it! I had not realized it had already been turned into a book and published in Gorgias Press a couple years ago.

Also, you may be interested in Alexander Borg's 1999 monograph The Language of Color in the Mediterranean: an anthology of ethnographic aspects of color terms, Stockholm.

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A fantastic read if you're aimed down that rabbit hole would be Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, New York 2010. He quotes "Lyons, J. 1999. Vocabulary of color with particular reference to ancient Greek and classical Latin. In The language of color in the Mediterranean, ed. A. Borg, 38–75. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell."

A major theme throughout the book would be the perception of color as mirrored in language. Starting with ancient Greek and Latin and what appears to be their surprisingly limited vocabulary for describing colors (anything from sea to oxen to violets are referred to as "wine-dark" by Homer) Deutscher follows the evolution of languages and describes an oddly recurring pattern of which colors are referred to by name prior to others.

Deutscher shows that the assignation of a language to a well-known and named primary color is highly dependant on cultural background. One of the examples that are easily imagined are those of shades of turquoise - while some people would classify a certain shade as "green", those of a different sociocultural (and linguistic) background would insist on the same color swatch being "blue".

  • Welcome to the site and thank you for the great answer! – Joonas Ilmavirta Dec 27 '16 at 13:54

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