Colour Histories: A Look at the History of Blue

Galen Schultz small
Galen Schultz
, Witness This Editor

Colour Histories: A Look at the History of Blue The Ocean Blue (Image:

The Ocean Blue (Image:

Blue has been my favourite colour since the nappy days. Like many people, I seemed to have developed a natural love for this colour. Today I can stare at the ocean blue for hours – especially when it’s that deep, intense shade.

Not surprisingly, blue is the world’s number one favourite colour! This may seem obvious considering that it lingers over all our heads on most days. Science fans might find it interesting to know that the sky is blue because molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light.

Colour Histories: A Look at the History of Blue Pre-sunset (image:

Pre-sunset (image:

Colour and Language:

What’s more interesting is that blue is the last colour to appear in human language. To put it differently, blue did not exist until relatively recently. Some interesting research suggests that until humans have a way of describing something – even something as fundamental as colour – we have a reduced ability to notice that it’s there.

Homer (the Greek historian) famously described the sky as the “wine-dark sea” in The Odyssey, suggesting that to the ancient Greeks, the sky appeared as a very different shade to blue. More bizarrely, Homer described iron and sheep as violet and honey as green…

Colour Histories: A Look at the History of Blue Homer


A study of ancient Greek texts reveals that their world was coloured in tones of black, white and metallic – with occasional flashes of red and yellow. And this wasn’t unique to ancient Greece! In almost all ancient cultures there was no distinction between blue and green. It’s interesting to consider that this is also a common form of colour blindness today.

In ancient human perception everything was first described in terms of light or dark (i.e. black and white) – except for ancient China, which described shades of blue as deep or shallow instead of light or dark. The next colour on the scene was red – the colour of blood and wine. Yellow and green were next on the scene, but once again, blue is the very last.

“The only ancient culture to develop a word for blue was the Egyptians — and as it happens, they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.” –

Colour Histories: A Look at the History of Blue (image:


But can it be true that we only see something once there is a word for it? A different study of a Namibian tribe, which had no words or distinction between blue and green, revealed some interesting results:

“When shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue, they could not pick out which one was different from the others — or those who could see a difference took much longer and made more mistakes than would make sense to us, who can clearly spot the blue square”


However, when presented with a circle of green squares, where one square is a slightly different shade of green, they could immediately spot the difference. See if you can:

Colour Histories: A Look at the History of Blue Which square is a different shade of green? (image:

Which square is a different shade of green? (image:

(We’ll reveal the results at the end of this post).

The study concluded that without any way to describe a colour in terms of language, it is much harder to notice what is unique about it; and this is irrespective of common biology and eyesight!

It’s an interesting thought to ponder: did colours and our ability to see them come into existence over time? Let’s be honest now, who identified the green block that was a slightly different shade in the image above? We won’t judge 🙂

Judge Judy (image:

Judge Judy (image:

Interesting Facts About the Colour Blue:

Blue has more complex and contradictory meanings than any other colour. However, considering the above evidence, we may need to take the following with a pinch of salt:

  • Dark blue (supposedly) connotes trust, dignity, intelligence and authority (a reason why blue is often used in insurance adverts, such as Sanlam).
  • Bright blue = cleanliness, strength, dependability and coolness (a large reason why blue is commonly used for advertising household cleaning products).
  • And light (sky) blue = peace, serenity, ethereal, spirituality and infinity (I think you get the idea by now).

But let’s accept that these meanings have a lot to do with the tangible qualities of the ocean as well as the more intangible aspects of the sky. It’s quite interesting to also consider that in American culture blue has evolved as a symbol of depression – “feeling blue” or “singing the blues” being prime examples. In German “to be blue” means to be drunk, and in Russian it means to be homosexual.

Please pass the salt!

Blue in Interior Design:

Because blue ranks so high as a universal favourite, it is widely believed that one can’t go wrong using blue in your home. However, it is suggested that blue be used in combination with other colours to have a more creative effect.



Apparently, we perceive blue areas as receding or smaller, and refraction can cause “visual fog” if used excessively in interior spaces. The thought that blue can instill feelings of either calm or depression is certainly up for debate.

A final interesting (yet salty) truth to the effects of blue, is that: because the colour blue has very few connections to taste or smell, it may act as an appetite suppressant…

Colour Histories: A Look at the History of Blue The green square that stood out (image:

The green square that stood out (image:

Any thoughts about what blue does for you?


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1 Response

  1. Anne-Lou says:

    Fascinating! The lack of distinction between blue and green also occurs in Zulu where there is one word for both colours : ihlaza. One has to distinguish with a qualification – ihlaza kazulu (sky)or ihlaza kutshani (grass).

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