Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Why are Bermuda onions called "red" onions?

Quora often provides me with suggestions for blog posts. I read a question today that filled me with such indignation that I had to answer it, and had to post this to my blog as well.

Question: Why are 'red onions' called so when they're clearly purple in color?

Bermuda and Spain

Oh! The injustice!! I get angry with misplaced apostrophes, and livid when someone gets all floofy in the spelling of there/their/thay're/thare. But this is more than just word injustice -- this is about color. Anyone who knows me knows that color and beer are the most sacred things in my life.which is as close to being sacred to me as beer is.

But I digress. There is actually a very reasonable answer to this question, and oddly enough, it's one that doesn't require me to call anyone stupid.

In 1969, two linguistic researchers [1] asked a whole lot of people from around the world to name colors in their native language. Altogether, they surveyed a few thousand people, speaking 110 different languages. Based on an analysis of their data, they proposed the theory that languages follow a distinct pattern in the development of color names.

Primitive languages start with analogs of white and black with everything that is a light color being called white (or their word for white), and everything that is a dark color being called their word for black.

Red is the next color that is added, with a single word standing for red, yellow, orange, pink, etc. The next step after red is either to create a new word to separate yellow from red, or to distinguish a collection of greens and blues from white and black.

Ultimately, the language evolves to 11 basic color names: white, black, gray, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet/purple, pink, and brown. Some languages (namely Japanese, Russian, and Italian) have further broken the blue category into sky blue and navy blue.

Yes, I understand that my rendition of orange is not so good

Hang on, John. In English, we have sky blue and navy blue. Why aren't these considered basic color names? 

That's a fair question. In English, we distinguish between the two versions of blue by adding the modifiers sky and navy. But, we have a lot of other modifiers that could be applied to blue to arrive at the colors cadet blue, cobalt blue, greenish blue, midnight blue, Pacific blue, pale blue, purplish blue, robin's egg blue, steel blue, and turquoise blue. None of these are basic color names because they are just modifiers of the basic name blue. Chromolinguists also have a requirement that basic color names must also be monolexic, meaning they must be one word.

Getting back to the theory of Berlin and Kay, here is the original sequence, taken from a subsequent paper by one of the same authors [2]:

Original B&K evolutionary sequence of color term development

If this is all true, then it explains the use of red applied to Bermuda onions and also to cabbage which happens to have lots of anthocyanin, both of which are actually purple. At the time when it became necessary to distinguish between Spanish onions and Bermuda onions, the word purple was not commonly used in the language. In the diagram above, the language was in Stage VI. Red was the common term that signified either purple or red, so red was the name given.

The terms red onion and red cabbage stuck, in much the same way as the anachronistic phrases "hit return", "dial your phone number" and "tape a TV show".

Here are some more examples of vestigial chomo-misnomers: What color are your blue jeans?

[1] Berlin, B., Kay, P.: Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles (1969)

[2] Kay, Paul, and Richard S. Cook, World Color Survey, Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology, Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015


  1. What a great short blog! Also a great short color lexicon discussion. People always like to fight when I mention there are no truly blue veggies and fruits. I'd love to be proven wrong.

  2. What name do you give to the color of a blueberry, Rachel?

    Thanks for the comment!

    1. Me? Mirtilli. In any case hey are much darker then 'dark blue", but they dirt my hand with a red. This definitely requires a new colour name, not just about perception on mind, but dirt on hands.

  3. When you cook blueberries or blend them they make purple.

  4. Someone actually asked me about this. Your answer was what I sent her. Thank you.