April 17, like all other days, provides me with an opportunity to exhibit random curiosity. Today’s random curiosity found itself exploring the meaning and origins of the word “crimson.” I can’t say with even a shred of certainty why that word caught my attention, nor why that attention grew into an insatiable curiosity.  But I can say with certainty that’s exactly what happened.  And when such a thing happens, there is no sense in fighting it; it’s best to simply go with the flow.  And so I did.

Because every dictionary I own is in storage in a large wooden crate, inaccessible to me even if I were 325 miles west of where I am today, I had no choice but to travel electronically to dictionaries residing in places more hospitable to inquiring minds like mine.  My first and only stop was at, where I found the word, an adjective, defined as “deep purplish-red”  or “sanguinary,” the latter defined as “full of or characterized by bloodshed” and “ready or eager to shed blood; bloodthirsty” and “composed of or marked with blood.”  The noun and verb forms of the word were related to the definition involving color.

Naturally, my immediate assumption about the etymology of the word involved blood. But I continued to read, as much to verify my assumption as to learn something new.  My assumption, it turns out, was wrong.  If can be trusted, it seems there are Arabic origins of the word, origins including the Arabic word “qirmizī,” that involve the use of the dried bodies of a scale insect, Kermes ilices, which live on small, evergreen oak trees of the Mediterranean region.  These dead bodies were used to prepare a red dye.

A further assumption, untested, is that this insect-body-dye was blood-red. From this moment forward (providing I remember what I’ve just written), I will forever equate the word crimson with dead insects. That is not how I intended to start my day, but sometimes events beyond our control just happen to us and we have to roll with them.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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