Saturday, September 26, 2009

Lavender’s Blue, and Green May Also Be Red

It’s odd to say, but it wasn’t until after college — after I’d stopped taking linguistics classes — that I realized that educated guesses don’t necessarily turn out to be correct, no matter how likely they seem. A great theory firmly rooted in etymological evidence may easily turn out to be wrong. And sometimes, all signs may point to yes but a definitive answer may still be elusive.
zinnober (ZIN-no-ber) — noun: 1. a chrome green color. 2. the German word for cinnabar, a red mercuric sulfide used as a pigment or simply a deep, vivid red.
I’ll admit right now that this word is pretty damn hard to research, since it simply doesn’t get used very often. It appears on this list of obscure color terms as meaning “a chrome green color” but otherwise is only cited as being the German take on the English word cinnabar, which refers to red minerals, pigments or colors. So what gives? Why should it be both red and green?

For those of you who have been following this blog for a while, this discrepancy should sound familiar. A previous word of the week — the inexplicable sinople — can also refer to either red or green, depending on the context. And those of you who might remember my post on “R”/“L” switches beyond those that happen with translation between English and Asian languages should recall that it’s not all that uncommon for an “L” to become an “R.” With these in mind, it seemed pretty reasonable that zinnober and sinople could simply be variants of sinople, especially since “B” and “P” are also often interchangeable. (The sounds these letters represent are voiced and unvoiced variations on the same sound. If this doesn’t make sense, make the sounds right now and pay attention to what your mouth needs to do to make either. The motion is exactly the same, only with “B” utilizing the vocal chords, and therefore something that could easily get switched up between one language and another.) Really, how else could two different words come to mean the same pair of opposite colors?

From what I’ve found so far, it may be the case that zinnober and sinople are one and the same. I can’t say for sure. According to Merriam-Webster, cinnabar comes from the Middle English cynabare, which goes back further to the Anglo-French sinopre, the Latin cinnabaris, the Greek kinnabari, and finally to something non-Indo-European. And it’s related to the Arabic zinjafr, “cinnabar.” Though it didn’t come up when I wrote about sinople before, at least one site explicitly states that Sinop — the Turkish city that gave us the term sinople — also gave us cinnabar. Admittedly, isn’t the most trustworthy site out there. I’d like to offer something better, but a Google search for “sinople cinnabar” didn’t turn up much else.

There also seems to be some argument that zinnober and cinnabar actually have no connection whatsoever. Thomas Kerth’s notes to Lanzelet, one of the oldest versions of the Lancelot story, conjectures that “a similarity of sense led to an unfortunate confusion with cinnabar, a word of Oriental origin which has no connection with sinople.” Not solving the problem one way or another is a line from Alexander Del Mar’s A History of Precious Metals:
The Portuguese name of Minho and the Spanish name Minio are from the Latin minium, or cinnabar, a red ore, from which is extracted the vermillion of the toilet table and the mercury and quicksilver of the sluicebox. Technically, it is the red sulpheret of mercury, to which the Phoenicians or the Venetians gave the name sinople, sinoper, or sinopite, from Sinope, in Pontus, near which place they evidently found depsoits of this ore. This word has survived to present time as a synonym for red. The river Minho was evidently given its name either because its waters were of a reddish colour, or else because deposits of cinnabar were found in the districts which it drained, both of which circumstances characterized the Minho.
The end result: I feel like zinnabar is probably the same as sinople, etymologically speaking. But without any authoritative source that I have access to telling me that this is, in fact, the case, I just have to wonder — about whether these etymological paths converge and why English should have two terms that can mean either one color or its opposite.

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