Word of the Day Adom: As Red as Brown Can Be

As languages evolved, they developed words for colors. Red seems to have encompassed a lot.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Hebrew word for red is a-DOM, and the Bible abounds with it.

As we discussed last week, two researchers, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, postulate that languages start with just two words for colors – the ultimate basics, black and white. Black encompasses all the dark colors and white, the warm ones. In their book "Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution" (1969), Berlin and Kaye describe a relatively fixed 7-stage progression to 11 basic colors – the third of which is red. Or, as we said – adom.

While the bible has precious little mention of black and quite a bit of white, it has a great many things described as being adom. These cover shades that would not be considered red at all in English, or in modern Hebrew either.

For example, special ritual cows are described as "red," though they are in fact brown (the Koran calls them "yellow"). Another "red" item, a-la bible, is the lentil stew that Jacob gave his brother Esau in return for his blessing – that is also described as adom but was presumably brown. ("Red" or "pink" lentils are a: no such thing and b: cook into a yellowish-brownish paste.)

Adom didn't only cover brown, naturally. It also covered various shades of red such as the hair of the famously redheaded King David, who is said to be an admoni. The Bible also uses the word adom to describe the pinkish flesh of a lover in the Song of Songs and the deep red color of blood.

It is likely that the word adom itself comes from the Hebrew word for blood – dam. That may also be true of the word for earth - adama.

The ancient Hebrews and the peoples of the Near East in general prized red dye. The Bible describes several such dyes, including shani – crimson, as well as tekhelet and argaman, both of which would be called purple nowadays. However, no word for purple made it into the Bible. People back then may have viewed the color purple as a mere kind of red, as Berlin and Kaye found to be the case with languages that didn't have a word for purple.

Words for purple only appear in the seventh stage, according to Berlin and Kay’s 1969 study. We will see that modern Hebrew word for purple - sagol - would only come about in the late 19th Century. But before we arrive at purple, we must first go to green, the next color that Berlin and Kay’s data suggests should appear in Hebrew - and the subject of Thursday's word of the day.

Red, a word that latter-day people don't consider ambiguous. Once, though, it could mean a wide range of colors.Credit: Eitan Ben-Moshe
Camels ambling through the desert of Edom. Once upon a time, camel-color could have been called "adom," or red.Credit: Moshe Gilad

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