Let's spend a week on easier words. We've had themes about spring colors and autumn colors, and this week we'll look at the color black, starting with black itself.
Incredibly, black may have originally meant white. In Old English the usual word for this dark color was entirely different. It was sweart as in modern swarthy; Germanic languages still use cognates of sweart to mean the dark color we now call 'black'. When Old English did use words in the pattern b-l-a-k (with the 'a' either long or short), they meant 'white'. (With the long 'a' it may also have meant 'black'. I am unclear on this.)
By the time of Middle English it is doubtful which color the word means! Context sometimes indicates 'white, pale', sometimes indicates 'black', and often leaves you completely in the dark.
Even today, the sound of 'black' is much like such 'white' words as French blanc = white (as in Mont Blanc) and English bleach to whiten. And one can see a connection, in that a fire emits light (white) and scorches wood (black). (In the same vein, Greek phlegein = to burn, scorch compares with Latin flagrare = to blaze, glow, burn.)
Today black has a negative connotation when used metaphorically, as in 'black arts'. That connotation emerged early in other tongues (Kali, the Hindu death-goddess, is from Sanskrit kali = the black one), but in English the negative connotation does not seem to have arisen until the late 1500s. That too suggests to me that the English meaning was unsettled until a bit before then.This message has been edited. Last edited by: wordcrafter,
Today's word can mean a certain card game, but we are looking at another meaning.
blackjack – U.S.: a short weapon for bludgeoning, consisting of a weighted head and a pliable handle
A blackjack is a small stealth weapon, easily made and easily concealed, used to strike the back of the head. To make a simple blackjack, partially fill a small cloth pouch with lead pellets, or even loose coins. Grasp it by the loose cloth at the top of the pouch, and swing it with a flip of the wrist.
See here for picture and details.
truncheon – Brit: a short thick stick carried as a weapon, as by a British police officer
Compact OED dictionary erroneously defines 'blackjack' as a kind of truncheon. Not so: a truncheon, a solid stick about a foot long, is no a concealed weapon, and it is manufactured. But the beauty of a blackjack is that it is small enough to hide in a pocket, is easy to make, and can be quick and quiet.
A couple of thoughts. The first is that there is a difference between absorption and reflection, so that you can define black as the absence of color (in that it reflects no color) or the sum of all colors (in that it absorbs all light) I seem to remember that OE utilized one scheme, while Romance languages utilized the opposite. Googling notes that OE had Brightness terms, while ME had hue, and while I've read the book referenced, I couldn't explain precisely the points at issue.
The whole area of color terms was one which was very important for cognitive linguistics and two anthropologist, Berlin and Kay, proposed the fact that there are languages do not divide color space arbitrarily, but that languages range from 2 to 11 or 12 colors and that the colors will appear in a particular order. Thus, no language will have a word for green without having a word for red. Here's a paper
that discusses the theory and gives a list of references.
Unfortunately, I am clueless as to colors, so this explanation is probably full of holes, so I urge anyone interested to check out the references.
necromancy – prediction by communicating with the dead; think "séance". (more generally: divination, sorcery, witchcraft, enchantment)
An interesting word, but the prefix necro- is Greek meaning means 'death, corpse, etc.' as in 'necrosis'. So what does this have to do with 'black'?
It’s a tale of two prefixs with confusingly-similar sounds. Nigr- (black) is Classical Latin. That Latin also adopted necro- (death) in necromantia, which came to mean 'death prophecy', predicting by talking with the dead. That's clearly what we'd call a black art, and in Medieval times that Latin necromantia became nigromantia 'black prophecy'.
By the years 1100-1400 that Medieval Latin word in nigr- form had come into many languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Occitan, Dutch, high and low German), and in the 1300s English took it from French: nigramancie; nigromance. That is, today's word came into English as 'black prophecy'. Only later (1450? 1550?) did the English start to correct back to the necro- spelling of Classical Latin.
To whitewash is to give something a false appearance of good, by concealing or glossing over its the faults. Similarly,
blackwash – to blacken the character of by highlighting the faults of¹
(noun senses of each: something that does so; the act of doing so)
When a writer uses 'blackwash' this way, he almost always is contrasting it with a preceding word 'whitewash'. I suspect that a reader would not understand 'blackwash' if it stood alone as a separate word, without such a contrast. If so, query whether this 'blackwash' can really be considered to be a 'word'.
– Time Magazine, Mar. 20, 1978
The inquiry … is turning out to be the complete opposite of a cosy, well-spun whitewash. It's a pity there is no such word as "blackwash" because that would aptly convey the way in which pretty well everyone involved is going to emerge - with permanent damage to their reputations.
– Nicholas Leonard, This inquiry will blackwash Blair and the BBC, Irish Independent, Aug. 18, 2003
¹ Definitions are by wordcrafter, for I do not think the dictionary definitions are accurate. A false appearance of good can be created by concealing faults, or by claiming non-existent virtues. But only the former, not the latter, is 'whitewashing'. Similarly for 'blackwashing'.
Our theme is 'black,' but the first antonym that comes to mind for whitewash is 'tar,' which is equally pejorative but in the opposite direction.
When a side wins a test series 5-0 it is known as a "whitewash". I believe some 30 or so years ago England was on the wrong end of such a beating at the hands of the West Indies, all of whose players were black. Some papers took to calling the series a "blackwash". Such a coinage would never be made in these more racially sensitive times, of course.
Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
blackshirt – a member of a fascist organization
Mussolini's followers in the Italian Fascist party, before and during World War II, were called the blackshirts after their black uniforms. Like groups in England got the same name. According to the dictionaries the term is now more general, not limited to those organizations and that time period.
However, although OED and other several respected dictionaries claim this broader usage, I haven't been able to find quotes employing 'blackshirt' that way. The term always seems to refer to the specific fascists of Mussolini or his contemporaries. I'm not convinced that the term 'blackshirt' really has the more general sense of 'any fascist'.
Speaking of black...
One of my colleagues wanted to name our conference, to explain how a competency exam is developed, "Inside the Black Box." I thought that title would be a bit too, shall we say, subtle. I am not familiar with the phrase, but I suppose I can understand it from the context. Still...it's hardly a drawing card for a conference.
If you can see inside the black box it becomes a white box or glass box
The speech of many – not all – African-Americans is not standard English. Such 'black English' has many different versions, and linguists disagree over whether to view this black English as English (non-standard), or as dialects of English, or as separate creole language(s).
This is not just a dry academic disagreement without real-world impact. Consider: is Ebonics a 'foreign language', for purposes of school programs to assist students who speak only a foreign language? At least one major school district, Oakland California, has answered 'yes'.
With these different views come different definitions of today's word. I take OED's definition.
Ebonics – African-American English, esp. when considered as a distinct language or dialect with linguistic features related to or derived from those of certain West African languages, rather than as a non-standard variety of English
[coined 1973 by Prof. R. L. Williams, blending ebony and phonics.
An alternate term is African American Vernacular English, or AAVE.]
There is an emotional charge to many usages of this word. For example, this quote reminds me of how in the 1820s some self-righteous British prescriptivists disparaged the speech differences in the US.
– Deidre Mace, Debauching English, Orlando Sentinel, Feb. 25, 2006
I believe they did this because they were applying for a grant from a bilingual education program, so they tried defining 'ebonics' as a foreign language.
Three common terms are offered for their black etymologies.
black sheep – a bad character from an otherwise respectable group
Why would a sheep be considered bad merely because it is black? Because its wool was worthless, since it could not be dyed a different color.
melancholy – adj.: sad or depressed. noun: deep, persistent sadness
Greek melas black. An excess of black bile was believed to cause depression.
touchstone – a standard or criterion used to judge something's quality or genuineness
Formerly, a variety of hard black stone was used to judge the purity of gold or silver, by the streak left when the metal was rubbed against the stone.
This humor from today's paper, by Christopher Buckley, has Alan Greenspan speaking.
But at the last minute, my nerves would fail me and instead I would offer some blancmange on the order of "Over the course of the next seven quarters I would anticipate very minor readjustmentns in the world price of molybdenum which I feel at this point in time do not warrant any stenuous measures." And everyone would go "Ohhhhhhhhh."
"black" is from Old English blæc, from Common Germanic *blakaz, burned, from IE bhel "to shine, flash, burn". It is cognate with bleach, blanch, and French blanc.
According to OEtymolD , it is also cognate with Old English blac "white, bright". If that word had survived into Modern English, it might have become blake.