Business Insider has a really interesting article up called No one could see the colour blue until modern times that explores the idea that the colour blue is not something people perceived long ago. Or at least not in the way we do today. It is fascinating.
This isn’t another story about that dress, or at least, not really.
It’s about the way that humans see the world, and how until we have a way to describe something, even something so fundamental as a colour, we may not even notice that it’s there.
Until relatively recently in human history, “blue” didn’t exist.
As the delightful Radiolab episode “Colours” describes, ancient languages didn’t have a word for blue — not Greek, not Chinese, not Japanese, not Hebrew. And without a word for the colour, there’s evidence that they may not have seen it at all.
How we realised blue was missing
In the Odyssey, Homer famously describes the “wine-dark sea.” But why “wine-dark” and not deep blue or green?
In 1858, a scholar named William Gladstone, who later became the Prime Minister of Great Britain, noticed that this wasn’t the only strange colour description. Though the poet spends page after page describing the intricate details of clothing, armour, weaponry, facial features, animals, and more, his references to colour are strange. Iron and sheep are violet, honey is green.
So Gladstone decided to count the colour references in the book. And while black is mentioned almost 200 times and white around 100, other colours are rare. Red is mentioned fewer than 15 times, and yellow and green fewer than 10. Gladstone started looking at other ancient Greek texts, and noticed the same thing — there was never anything described as “blue.” The word didn’t even exist.
It seemed the Greeks lived in murky and muddy world, devoid of colour, mostly black and white and metallic, with occasional flashes of red or yellow.