Daily Archives: July 15, 2022

carmine, crimson, vermilion

Chow down, bookworms, it’s time to be well red in etymology and entomology.

Yes, red, not read. I mean, both, I suppose, but the thing is, we don’t start with eating paper. We start with eating wood. Specifically, we start with eating a particular kind of evergreen oak. Don’t worry, you don’t have to eat it; little bugs will – bugs that were once called little worms. And then we crush them.

Does that bug you? Does it seem red in tooth and claw? Sorry, my friend; for a long time it was hard to get a good red without doing damage. And I don’t mean making someone bleed; blood is actually pretty bad as a coloring agent – you probably know that it gets kind of brownish. The preferred source of red dye among people around the Mediterranean for a long time (though not in recent centuries) was a little red insect that we now call Kermes vermilio. It was ultimately supplanted by two things: cinnabar, an ore of mercury, frighteningly bad for your health; and cochineal, a different bug, from the new world, which needed fewer bugs for the same amount of dye – but still, frighteningly bad for… the bugs’ health.

There are three colour names that trace back to Kermes vermilio, though none of them trace back to its taxonomic name; rather the converse, since it got its scientific name in 1864 on the basis of the reds associated with it.

Reds? Yes, there are multiple kinds of red that are based originally on this bug. Due to shifts in ideas and also to the replacement materials for the dyes from this crawler (cinnabar and cochineal), it split into three kinds of red – but that also varies from language to language, as colour definitions will. And that split matches the three words – not one, not two, but three – that came from this little critter.

First we have Kermes, the name of the whole genus of bugs that include Kermes vermilio; all of them eat oak and die red. Kermes has nothing to do with frogs (the name Kermit, by the way, comes from the Gaelic Mac Dhiarmid); it comes from Arabic qirmiz, which is the name for the insect in question, and qirmazī, the colour name derived from it. That in turn became Latin carmosinus, which, in the mortar and pestle of time, ended up in English (via Spanish and French) two ways: as carmine and as crimson

You may know Carmine as an Italian man’s name, but that’s not related; it traces back to Latin carmen ‘song, poem’. You may also know carmine as the name of a dye, in particular the dye extracted from cochineal (oh, the indignity, to be named after one bug but made from another); sometimes you’ll see it as carmine lake, which, though it’s a perfectly fine name for a lounge singer or a California suburb, is really just extract of dried bug bodies on an aluminum substrate (the lake has nothing to do with water and everything to do with the lac in shellac, the lacq in lacquer, and the Indian word lakh meaning ‘100,000’: it all goes back to a very large number of bugs). And anyway, the colour carmine – made with the dye of the same name – is a vivid red, which is officially (per Wikipedia) RGB 150/0/24. Or related shades, because humans aren’t as precise as computers.

Crimson, of course, you know very well, from pirates and crimson tide (a killing force in marine life and college football) and such like. Wikipedia tells me it’s the national colour of Nepal; I don’t need Wikipedia to tell me that it is also the theme colour of Harvard University – the student newspaper there is The Harvard Crimson. Crimson is (again per Wikipedia) RGB 220/20/60. At a glance you can see it’s brighter but also slightly less purely primary red.

The third word shows up pretty clearly in Kermes vermilio – obviously, it’s vermilion, or, for those who think a hundred thousand is not enough, vermillion – but its true origin has been crushed and bled out. Yet the truth (or the true lie) will worm its way to the surface: it’s Latin vermiculus, diminutive of vermis ‘worm’. Yes, these teeny bugs were called ‘little worms’ by the Romans. The hard carapace of the c was ground out, and it became different things in different languages, such as Italian vermiglione and French vermeil. English Wikipedia says that vermilion – the colour for a long time produced by cinnabar (mercury sulfide, sooo healthy for you) – is a vivid reddish orange, RGB 227/66/52. Which you can see, if you know what those numbers mean, is in the same neighbourhood as crimson but with more green mixed in.

But that’s English, and official colour definition English at that; you may have different ideas about what’s vermilion. Words take different paths for different people. This is especially true in different languages. If you want the most direct translation of the basic, broad, generic colour term red nto Portuguese, it’s vermelho (said like “vermelyoo”)– which, yes, is the same word evolved into Portuguese, with much broadening of sense. But wait! If you want specifically vermilion, Portuguese has a word for that too: vermelhão (the ão is like “ow” but nasalized, so it’s bringing back the n). Catalan has a similar pair: ‘red’ is vermell and ‘vermilion’ is vermiló.

And it all traces back to these little worms that are actually little bugs that eat oaks and then get crushed for colour – or I should say got crushed for colour, since they’ve been supplanted. Etymology and entomology… and chemistry and color theory and history.