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The English word purple nowadays refers to the color that is a mixture of blue and red. This word ultimately derives from the Latin purpura which also referred to that color, so it is faithful to that original meaning. However, according to OED the English word purple at earlier points in history referred to any shade of red, not just the mixture of red and blue with which we are familiar. I have been told that in some European languages (perhaps in German or French?), the word purple still means "red" like the English purple historically did. I have not been able to verify this.

I would like to know why in English the word took on a more general meaning and then went back to its original meaning, and why in other languages that more general meaning stuck and the word did not revert to its original Latin meaning.

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I'd say that the use of the modern English purple has shifted somewhat toward the violet side of the "line of purples" from its Latin origin purpura. This shows how English purple has generalised with the greater range of purple shades physically available. True Tyrian purple, from Bolinus brandaris, is certainly on the red side for my own range of purple, and the more violet shade from Hexaplex trunculus is closer to my ideal.

Note how this differs from the English purpure, which is closer to the Latin in orthography, is only retained in modern English in the field of heraldry, and which William Caxton is 1489 describes as:

Purpre that we calle red representeth the fire the moost noble of all iiii elementes.

Although English violet is used for the spectral colour (thanks to Newton; purpureus was definitely more common in Classical Antiquity and in the Middle Ages), and thus is strictly distinguished in colorimetry, it is not attested in Old English (whereas purple is), and is first attested as the flower in the 14th century, with the colour not long after that.

French prefers the adjective violet, through Latin violaceus, to cover a similar range of colours on the "line of purples". Its noun and adjective pourpre continues to refer to the purple dyes extracted from the murex shellfish, and the historical and liturgical robes of purple, and has extended it in literary use to a dark burgundy-like red. From Leon Dierx, 1867:

La pourpre de la honte au sourire crédule.

Hence the quote from Les mots de couleur : des passages entre langues et cultures that English purple is not the equivalent to French purple:

De même l’anglais purple n’est pas l’équivalent de pourpre

Some of the other Romance languages have words apart from the descendants of Latin viola or violaceus as their most common word for purple: roxo in Portuguese comes from Latin russeus (dark red) but extends across the "line of purples" towards violet, with púrpura staying on the reddish side. Similarly for morado in Castilian Spanish, named for the relatively reddish purple of the mulberry, but also by extension the darker, bluer shade of the blackberry.

As for German, we see that violett (borrowed from French) is the main reference, with lila also being used. Whether they are used interchangeably or not, whether it's a formality or generational difference, or whether it is an actual difference in hue, that seems to be debated. However, it is interesting to see how the German used at the Vienna Natural History Museum describes down the difference in a scientific context.

It is tempting to try to link changes with various historical factors:

  • the switch to using cochineal for cardinals' robes in the Roman Catholic Church after the 1453 Fall of Constantinople (and thus the extinction of Tyrian purple in Western Europe)
  • the impact of mauveine, originally named aniline purple, discovered/synthesised in London in the 19th century, and sparking a fashion craze as well as the modern chemical industry
  • the Munsell color system and modern colorimetry (note how the "line of purples" is Purpurlinie in German and ligne de pourpres in French)

... but I think that the basic preference in the nomenclature in English had been established before these events.

An interesting comparison can be drawn with Chinese 紫色 (zǐsè in Standard Mandarin Pinyin; zi2 sik1 in Cantonese Jyutping; also むらさきいろ murasaki-iro in Japanese), which is derived from the root of the gromwell plant Lithospermum erythrorhizon and has been a basic plant dye from at latest the Spring & Autumn period (its popularity was even a concern for Confucius). The dye can produce very deep purples, close in hue to the purple of mauveine, but it generally tends to lighten and redden over time due to photobleaching. Hence 紫色 even in Modern Chinese can refer to a relatively wide spectrum of hues, and saying 紫蓝色 lit. purple-blue colour or 紫红色 lit. purple-red colour can be fairly common in daily speech.

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    In medicine, the condition called senile purpura involves blood beneath the skin and produces frequent reddish blotches, which incline toward the violet end of the spectrum as they become bilirubins. Like all medical terms, it's been around for a while with that meaning, and the color involved is always reddish, because blood.
    – jlawler
    Dec 31, 2021 at 17:04
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Here is some explanation: "In common English usage, purple is a range of hues of color occurring between red and blue. However, the meaning of the term purple is not well defined. There is confusion about the meaning of the terms purple and violet even among native speakers of English. Many native speakers of English in the United States refer to the blue-dominated spectral color beyond blue as purple, but the same color is referred to as violet by many native English speakers in the United Kingdom. The full range of colors between red and blue is referred to by the term purple in some British authoritative texts, whereas the same range of colors is referred to by the term violet in some other texts. The confusion about the range of meanings of the terms violet and purple is even larger when including other languages and historical texts." https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shades_of_purple

For me, in general, the purple colour is synonymously to the violet. There are some shades what I can call just a pink.

My own explanation of this drastically different perception of the purple in its history. I read that the expensive tyrian purple pygment (royal purple) was not once through the centuries changed by its more cheap counterparts that gives more reddish shades. Sometimes even the red one.

But you questions is interesting question. There is so-called blue-green distinction problem . You can read about it here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue–green_distinction_in_language

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    Additionally, interesting fact: the Greek epithet Πορφυρογέννητος translates into the Russian as Bagryannorodnyj where bagryannyj is one of the shades of the red.
    – T1nts
    Dec 29, 2021 at 6:09
  • Can you tell me exactly in which languages "purple" means something other than the blue-red mix? Dec 31, 2021 at 10:54
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    @RebChaimHaQoton It's probably not a matter of which language, but of individual habits, and what people are used to. Color term usage is not really standardized, outside industry, and doesn't affect personal usage much. Consider how often people argue about what color something is.
    – jlawler
    Dec 31, 2021 at 17:10

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