English Word Series: Black

All of the words humans use have a mysterious past- just like any living entity, words change their function and meaning over time. This is true in the case of the word ‘black’ which can be traced back five thousand years to the Proto-Indo-European word ‘bhleg’ meaning ‘to burn with black smoke’ or ‘to burn black with smoke’.

‘Black’ was used in the English language from 450 AD onward as an adjective to describe ‘colour pertaining to matter that was colourless’. It was not till the sixteenth century however that ‘black’ acquired a figurative meaning and a very bad reputation. From ‘blacken’ and its literal meaning ‘to stain black’, came the new meaning ‘to stain someone’s reputation, or defame’. This eventually extended to having ‘black’ describe malignant or deadly intentions or even death itself- ‘black curse’(1583), ‘black babbling’ (malicious or slanderous gossiping- 1624) and ‘black boding’ (ill omen-1742).

The incorporation of ‘black’ as a negative adjective resulted in sayings such as ‘black-looking man’, which referred not to the physical description of a man, but to the speaker’s belief that the man looked like he had bad intentions. This severely clashed with one of the earliest uses of black’s literal meaning- to describe a person with dark skin. By the nineteenth century terms like ‘blackboy’ (Black boy servants), and ‘blackfellows’ (Australian Aborigines) were commonly used- terms which are highly offensive in Modern English. By the mid-twentieth century, Doctor Martin Luther King’s slogan ‘Black is beautiful’ caused a significant change in how ‘Black’ (with a capitalized ‘b’) was used and perceived in society. By asserting pride in ‘Blackness’ and Black self-awareness, King changed ‘Black’ into the preferred appellation for most African-Americans.

The only literal meanings that are still in use for ‘black’ in Modern English are now greatly exceeded by its figurative counterparts- however one can still refer to the suit of spades or clubs as black (from late seventeenth century), coffee served without milk or cream as black (from late eighteenth century), and also refer to economic profit by being ‘in the black’, which inevitably came from the book-keeping practice of writing in black ink on the credit side of a ledger.