“I have been 40 years in the discovery that the queen of all colours is black.” — Auguste Renoir
What is black?
We see black when no visible light reaches the eye. It is the colour of objects or pigments that absorb all frequencies of light and reflect least. The blackest man-made material was created in 2008 by a team from Rice University in Houston. Using a “forest” of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes (cylindrical carbon molecules less than 1/50,000 of the width of a human hair), their super-black sheet reflects only 0.045 per cent of any light directed at it — ideal for solar panels and for harvesting the tiny amounts of heat present in space.
The word black hasn’t always meant “dark”. It comes from the proto-Indo-European root bhleg-, which meant to burn, gleam or shine and also produces “flame”. As the OED comments: “In Middle English it is often doubtful whether blac, blak, blake, means ‘black, dark’ or ‘pale, colourless, wan, livid’.” Black settled into its modern sense only in the late 16th century.
Niger in Africa doesn’t get its name from niger, the Latin word for black. It is most likely to come from the Tuareg phrase gher n gheren, “river of rivers”, shortened to ngher — referring to the Niger River that loops around the west of the country from its source in Guinea to its mouth in Nigeria. “Sudan” means “black” in Arabic. Southern and western Sudan is home to almost 600 tribal groups, speaking more than 400 languages and dialects.
The word “kohl” comes from the Arabic word kahala, to stain. The powder applied around the eyes was called al-kuhul – from which we get the word alcohol. Hence in 1626 Francis Bacon reported that “the Turkes have a black powder, made of a mineral called alcohole; which with a fine long pencil they lay under their eyelid”. Gradually this came to mean he concentrated distilled spirit of something, but it wasn’t until 1752 that it was used to indicate the intoxicating element in wine and beer.
Guinness is red, not black. When drinking a pint, hold it up to the light: it will show up as a deep ruby colour.
Blackberries aren’t berries. The botanical term for the blackberry is an “aggregated drupe”. Each “druplet” contains a single stone, just like a plum. A member of the rose family, the basic bramble (Rubus fruticosus) hybridises easily, and more than 400 microspecies have been recorded in Britain; any one bramble patch can contain many versions. That’s why ripening times and tastes can vary so much. The study of blackberries is batology, (from the Greek batos, bramble), not to be confused with battology, which means needless repetition (from Greek battologia, “stammering speech”).
A zebra is a light-coloured animal with dark stripes, not a dark one with light stripes. Dark parts of zebras fade while light parts remain unchanged. Black mambas are not black. They get their name from their black mouth, compared to other mambas that have white mouths. Black panthers are actually leopards that have a mutation whereby they produce more black pigment than usual. They still have rosettes (the markings on leopards should not strictly be called spots — they are rose-shaped, hence rosettes) only they are quite hard to see being black, like the rest of the fur. Kafka means “blackbird” in Czech.
A black sheep had wool that couldn’t be dyed and so wasn’t worth much, though to have one black sheep in a flock was considered good luck by shepherds. Baa Baa Black Sheep appears in the first printed collection of English nursery rhymes, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744.