LINGUIST List 14.1855

Thu Jul 3 2003

Review: Historical Linguistics/Semantics:Wanzeck(2003)

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  1. oebel, On the Etymology of Lexicalised Idioms Involving Colour

Message 1: On the Etymology of Lexicalised Idioms Involving Colour

Date: Wed, 02 Jul 2003 15:01:08 +0000
From: oebel <>
Subject: On the Etymology of Lexicalised Idioms Involving Colour

Announced at

Wanzeck, Christiane (2003) Zur Etymologie lexikalisierter
Farbwortverbindungen. Untersuchungen anhand der Farben Rot, Gelb,
Gruen und Blau [On the Etymology of Lexicalised Idioms Involving
Colour. Investigations into the Colours Red, Yellow, Green and Blue].

Reviewed by: Guido Oebel, Saga and Kurume/Fukuoka (both Japan)

Two reviews of this book are provided by the same reviewer: one in
English and one in German. The following review is the English

Introductory remark 
As an exception, allow me one personal remark right away at the
beginning of this review: Christiane Wanzeck's book is by far the most
fascinating reference book on linguistics I have ever had the pleasure
to review, particularly due to its highest standard in terms of form,
content and language. The author's thoroughly revised and expanded
version of her dissertation from 1996 (Ludwig-Maximilian-University
Munich), in my humble opinion, undisputedly presents a pioneering work
in the field of etymological linguistics thus determining standards
for future publications of similar content. Wanzeck's greatest merit
is her almost unsurpassable meticulous care she proves to have applied
while analyzing and verifying primary and secondary sources as
references for her investigation.


According to Wanzeck, 'for the first time, this book offers a coherent
representation of the etymology of historical and contemporary
lexicalised idioms' (Rodopi 2002), occurring particularly in German,
involving the colours 'red' (49-74), 'yellow' (75-92), 'green'
(93-130) and 'blue' (130-342). In addition, she deals with loan
translations such as 'blue-blooded' from the Spanish 'sangre azul'
(290-313) meaning 'noble' or the English 'blue-stocking' (322-340)
meaning 'intellectual woman'. Especially the colour adjective 'blue'
so far happened to pose many riddles as its meaning varies dependent
on its respective collocation 'noble', 'skipping work on Monday' as in
German 'blauer Montag' (156-207) or 'lie' as in German 'blaue Ente'
(248-267) accounting for the literal translation 'blue duck' in
English. As a matter of fact, phraseological expressions containing
'blue' account for the most extensive part of Wanzeck's book (130-342)
due to its linguistically extraordinary complexity and its semantic
spectrum in comparison to other colour words. Furthermore, Wanzeck's
investigation covers obsolete idioms such as the German 'Gruener
Brief' (112) meaning 'an unpleasant letter' and to the reviewer's and
of course, to the appreciation of a readership not exclusively
restricted to that of native Germans, colour phraseologisms in other
European languages such as English, French, Spanish and Dutch, as
e.g. 'iemand eene blauwe huik omhangen' (235-240) accounting for the
last-mentioned meaning in English 'to deceive someone'. First,
Wanzeck subdivides the idioms analyzed into two basic categories
regarding their syntactic-morphological features: 1st as Nominal
Phrase (NP) allocating a specifying adjectival function to the colour
lexeme as e.g. in 'blauer Montag' meaning 'Monday off'. 2nd, as
Verbal Phrase (VP) allocating the function as object predicative
(e.g. 'rot sehen' for 'to turn red in anger' in English) (56) or
solely as predicative (e.g. 'blau sein' for 'to be drunk' in English)
(145) to the lexicalized colour idiom. Concerning the Prepositional
Phrases (PP), Wanzeck observes occasional overlapping with with VPs
(e.g. 'vom gruenen Tisch aus' - Eng.: 'from a bureaucratic ivory
tower') (122). Wanzeck's study focuses on the question as to how and
to what extent the colour lexeme went from its respective overall
meaning of the colour word to adopt its new figurative meaning and
whether any regularity might be deduced from this phenomenon. By
doing so, the author deciphers convincingly the motivation of
expressions involving colour used in certain collocations. Thus,
Wanzeck succeeds in ascertaining when in what source evidence of the
phrase was first found and what meaning can be deduced from the
context of the respective reference. Wanzeck subsequently and
consistently clarifies the origin of meanwhile 'unfathomable phrases
on the basis of cultural, historical and linguistic information'
(Rodopi 2002). She even offers comprehensible solutions to borderline
cases in which the colour lexeme itself does not seem to pose a
problem, however, the overall meaning regarding its etymological
development surely does as e.g. in 'auf keinen gruenen Zweig kommen' -
Eng.: ' to get nowhere' (117-122) or 'jmdm. blauen Dunst vormachen' -
Eng.: 'to throw dust in s.o.'s eyes' (274-286). In the further course
of her investigation, Wanzeck covers the related discipline of
onomastics, etymologically analyzing place names (e.g. 'Gruenes
Gewoelbe', i.e. a museum in Dresden castle) (cf. Nopitsch 1801) and
street names deriving from Low German such as 'Rotes Meer' -
translated word-for-word into English: 'Red Sea' (cf. Mielke 1930:
182-188) or personal names such as 'Blaubart' (Eng.: 'Bluebeard') or
'Rotkaeppchen' (Eng.: 'Little Red Ridinghood'). In this context,
Wanzeck's analysis of colours and the motivation of their employment
in place names require a particularly meticulous scrutiny concerning
their historical-linguistic consideration as they often constitute
'relicts of an archaic state of language' (Seebold 1995: 606). Further
onomastic subjects analyzed by Wanzeck are class names (e.g. 'roter
Hund' literally corresponding to English 'red dog', i.e. medical term
for a certain disease), animal names (e.g.: 'Gruenspecht' (Eng.:
'green woodpecker') and plant names such as 'Gruener Salat' (Eng.:

Critical evaluation

In sum, I consider the present volume absolutely worth reading without
any reservation. As already mentioned at the very beginning of this
review, Wanzeck's book constitutes not only a multifaceted and utmost
gripping investigation of the etymology of historical and contemporary
lexicalized idioms involving the four primary colours red, yellow
green and blue but meets highest academic standards throughout its 428
pages. The author justifiably claims to offer 'a coherent' and
unprecedented 'representation of the etymology of historical and
contemporary lexicalized idioms involving colour' (Rodopi 2002). In
addition to my detailed and in the readers' opinion hopefully not too
panegyric synopsis, I would like to emphasize her extensive
bibliographical references (368-415) that alone justify the purchase
of Wanzeck's book as it constitutes an exemplary one dealing with
idioms involving colours. Last but at no means least, I should stress
the index (419-428) arranged in alphabetical order and clearly
subdivided into single languages such as German, English, French,
Dutch and Spanish where 'colour idioms' can be immediately located by
searching for the respective headword thus constituting not only an
outstanding but a unique source of reference. As apart from its purely
linguistic analysis Wanzeck's book considers cultural and historical
contexts, too, its use does not appear to be exclusively restricted to
language scientists but also constitutes an interdisciplinary
interface 'for the study of literature, folklore and the history of
art and law' (Rodopi 2002). In sum, I only may hope that the
relatively costly price of 90 Euro or 107 US Dollars, respectively,
does not deter potential readers interested in the very specific topic
of 'colour words' from purchasing a copy of Wanzeck's work. Apart from
individual purchase, I emphatically consider it a must on the
'shopping list' of university libraries not only within German
language boundaries.

References (print):

Mielke, Robert (1930). Das Rote Meer. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte einer
Volksanschauung. In: ZV, NF II/49, 182-188.

Nopitsch, Christian C. (1801). Wegweiser fuer Fremde in Nuernberg,
oder topographische Beschreibung der Reichsstadt Nuernberg nach ihren
Plaetzen, Maerkten. Nuerberg.

Seebold, Elmar (1995). Wortgeschichte/Etymologie der Namen. In: Ernst
Eichler et al. (Hgg.) Namenforschung. Ein internationales Handbuch zur
Onomastik. De Gruyter: Berlin/New York (HSK 11.1.), 602-610.

References (online):
> &type=new

References for further reading suggested by the reviewer as a lead-in
to 'colour words':

Quinion, Michael (?). The Colour of Words. The fugitive names of
hues. at: <>;


Guido Oebel (PhD in linguistics) is a native German currently teaching
German as a Foreign Language (DaF) and FLL at the university level in
Western Japan. His main areas of research are: DaF, sociolinguistics,
bilinguism, adult education and autonomous learning and approaches,
particularly 'Learning by Teaching' (LdL). His next major project is
his 'habilitation' with a thesis on DaF applying LdL supervised by the
French Professor in didactics and LdL-inventor Jean-Pol Martin of the
Catholic University Eichstaett-Ingolstadt (Germany).
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