My Word: Seeing red over the birth of crimson

A splash of colour: The crimson rosella shows off the brilliant colour that people have tried to recreate as a dye throughout history.
A splash of colour: The crimson rosella shows off the brilliant colour that people have tried to recreate as a dye throughout history.

Have you ever heard of kermes and its relationship with crimson. I thought not.

Kermes is a red dye derived from the dried bodies of the females of a scale insect in the genus kermes, primarily kermes vermilio.

The kerme insects are native in the Mediterranean region and live on the sap of the kermes oak.

They were used as a red dye by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The kermes dye is a rich red.

Kermes is the pregnant female insect gathered in large quantities from a species of evergreen oak in southern Europe and northern Africa.

In 1616 Bacon in Sylva commented “the scarlet powder, they call kermes”.

Eliezer Edwards in his Dictionary of Words, Facts and Phrases, said carmine came from kermes, “the dried bodies of European insects, somewhat similar to the Mexican cochineal insect.

They produce a scarlet dye almost equal to true cochineal”.

Craig Carver, writing in A History Of English In Its Own Words, said vermilion and crimson both were originally made from kermes made from the oldest-known red dye, which was later found to be inferior to a dye made from cochineal.

John Ayto, writing in Dictionary of Word Origins, said kerme came from Arabid qirmaz, which passed into English via old Spanish as cremisin.

Crimson is a deep red, almost purple.

Shakespeare had a go at it, when he wrote in Julius Caesar  in 1601: “Here the hunters stand, crimson’d in thy lethee.”

Crimson was at first used in dying fine cloth and velvet, with which this shade of red was first used in English.

Crimson was also used to describe blushing. In 1805, Robert Southey wrote: “See his cheek. How it hath crimson’d at the unworthy thought.”

Crimson gave way to other words. They were crimsoning, crimsonish and crimsonis, together with a lot of other words.

These days, the colour crimson is produced by synthetic means.

lauriebarber.com;lbword@midcoast.com.au