The Wanderwort Foreign Legion

July, 2020 Word Stories

Words are tireless soldiers of fortune. They go where they’re needed, and they’ve been known to follow the money wherever it leads. The German linguistics term Wanderwort describes a word that has wandered especially far and wide over the centuries, often for the purposes of trade. Words like sugar and tea sound similar in many languages, for example, because the products they describe were so successful on the global market (check out their etymologies for more details). Sometimes these wandering words fit in seamlessly when they land in a given language. Other times, they’re unlike anything else in the local vocabulary—just ask anyone who’s tried to find an English rhyme for the Wanderwort orange. This instalment discusses three colour-related wanderers that are known for giving English poets a hard time when it comes to rhyme.


The roots of the English word purple stretch back through the Latin purpura to the original Greek porphura, which was an expensive purplish dye derived from molluscs. At times, the sea creatures involved have themselves been called purples. The 1682 English edition of Lucretius’s De natura rerum thus records, for example, “The Purple’s blood gives Wool so deep a stain That we can never wash it out again,” and some mollusc species still bear the scientific Latin name Purpura. The English meaning of the word refers to the colour involved, and can be an adjective, a noun, or a verb. The Lindisfarne Gospels (715-720) thus refer in John 19:5 to a “purbple” robe, the Mappula Angliae (1475) describes seashells of “purpulle”, and the Impii Cuiusdam Epigrammatis (1565) laments native soil tragically “purpled” with blood.

Purple began its global conquest when purpura was used to distinguish the wardrobes of important people in the ancient Mediterranean world. The Roman empire was particularly fond of the vivid status symbol. It graced everything from aristocratic togas to the costumes of triumphant generals. It was even said that the emperor Caligula assassinated Ptolemy of Mauretania simply because the crowd at the theatre found Ptolemy’s purple attire more impressive than his own (Suetonius, Lives). A good purpling professional (a purpurarius) could make a very good living. The more faithful English derivative purpure competed with purple from the 11th century to the 20th, but in the end the triumphant purple held the field in common usage. It may be a case of what linguists call dissimilation: when similar sounds get crowded too close together, there is a tendency for one of them to change in pronunciation. Purpura might survive in English as purple and not purpure for the same reason the Latin word peregrinus survives as pilgrim, and not pirgrim.


The term silver came into English in the context of wealth and commerce, and settled down as a noun, an adjective, and a verb. The 9th-century Vespasian Psalter (104:37) contains a reference to “seolfre & golde” as precious metals, and the later description of local heraldry found in the Shropshire Grant of Arms (1478) refers to the image of “a gauntelet sillver sette in a wrethe gold”. Still later, the image-conscious weapons buff of Lesclarcissement (1530) announced, “I wyll sylver the hafte of my dagger”.

The precise origin of the Old English seolfor (in all its various spellings) is unknown, but some ancient word of the kind clearly enjoyed wide currency in the literal sense of the phrase, based on the number of surviving cognates (Old Frisian selover, Old Saxon siloƀar, Celtiberian silabur, Old Norse silfr, Russian serebró, etc.). This makes sense given the fact that silver has been used for many centuries as a form of currency, eventually in coins like the famous Greek drachma and Roman denarius. The precious metal has also been used for centuries in making fine things. Silver-coloured metal cutlery is still the most common kind today, and is still called silverware even when its main selling point is the quality of its stainless steel.

In the equally ancient economies of metaphor and myth, the beauty and value of silver endowed the element with more exotic qualities. The folk belief that only a silver bullet can magically kill werewolves—among other supernatural monsters—is old and well-established, for example. This association survives in the non-literal modern use of silver bullet to describe an ideal catch-all solution.


In English, the word for the colour orange was derived from the exotic Chinese fruit known by the same name. The Citrus x sinensis or “sweet orange” was introduced to Middle English as the orenge (Sinonoma Bartholomei, 1400), and later gave birth to the colour orenze (Sir James Balfour Paul, 1532). By rights, both words should really be spelled norange, since the fruit was known as a nāraṅga in Sanskrit and a nārang in Persian. When the Arabic derivative nāranj became the dialectal Italian word narancia or naranza, though, it gradually lost its initial n, since this sound was wrongly thought to be part of the preceding indefinite article un[a]. Narancia thus became arancia, in much the same way that the snake called a nadder in English came to be called an adder. By the time arancia made it into Middle English via the Old French orenge, the old initial n was gone for good. Unfortunately for English poets, questions about the letters at the beginning of the word make no difference at all when it comes to the bitter problem of trying to find a rhyme for orange.

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