black (adj.)

Old English blæc "absolutely dark, absorbing all light, the color of soot or coal," from Proto-Germanic *blakaz "burned" (source also of Old Norse blakkr "dark," Old High German blah "black," Swedish bläck "ink," Dutch blaken "to burn"), from PIE *bhleg- "to burn, gleam, shine, flash" (source also of Greek phlegein "to burn, scorch," Latin flagrare "to blaze, glow, burn"), from root *bhel- (1) "to shine, flash, burn."

The same root produced Old English blac "bright, shining, glittering, pale;" the connecting notions being, perhaps, "fire" (bright) and "burned" (dark), or perhaps "absence of color." "There is nothing more variable than the signification of words designating colour" [Hensleigh Wedgwood, "A Dictionary of English Etymology," 1859].

The usual Old English word for "black" was sweart (see swart). According to OED: "In ME. it is often doubtful whether blac, blak, blake, means 'black, dark,' or 'pale, colourless, wan, livid.' " Used of dark-skinned people in Old English.

Of coffee with nothing added, attested by 1796. Black drop (1823) was a liquid preparation of opium, used medicinally. Black-fly (c. 1600) was used of various insects, especially an annoying pest of the northern American woods. Black Prince as a nickname of the eldest son of Edward III is attested by 1560s; the exact signification is uncertain.

Meaning "fierce, terrible, wicked" is from late 14c. Figurative senses often come from the notion of "without light," moral or spiritual. Latin niger had many of the same figurative senses ("gloomy; unlucky; bad, wicked, malicious"). The metaphoric use of the Greek word, melas, however, tended to reflect the notion of "shrouded in darkness, overcast." In English it has been the color of sin and sorrow at least since c. 1300; the sense of "with dark purposes, malignant" emerged 1580s (in black art "necromancy;" it is also the sense in black magic). Black flag, flown (especially by pirates) as a signal of "no mercy," is from 1590s. Black dog "melancholy" attested from 1826.

Black belt is from 1870 in reference to district extending across the U.S. South with heaviest African population (also sometimes in reference to the fertility of the soil); it is attested from 1913 in the judo sense, worn by one who has attained a certain high degree of proficiency. Black power is from 1966, associated with Stokely Carmichael. Black English "English as spoken by African-Americans," is by 1969. The Black Panther (1965) movement was an outgrowth of Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee. Black studies is attested from 1968.

Origin and meaning of black

black (v.)

c. 1200, intrans., "to become black;" early 14c., trans., "to make black, darken, put a black color on;" from black (adj.). Especially "to clean and polish (boots, shoes, etc.) by blacking and brushing them" (1550s). Related: Blacked; blacking.

black (n.)

Old English blæc "the color black," also "ink," from noun use of black (adj.). From late 14c. as "dark spot in the pupil of the eye." The meaning "dark-skinned person, African" is from 1620s (perhaps late 13c., and blackamoor is from 1540s). Meaning "black clothing" (especially when worn in mourning) is from c. 1400.

To be in black-and-white, meaning in writing or in print, is from 1650s (white-and-black is from 1590s); the notion is of black characters on white paper. In the visual arts, "with no colors but black and white," it is by 1870 of sketches, 1883 of photographs. To be in the black (1922) is from the accounting practice of recording credits and balances in black ink.

For years it has been a common practice to use red ink instead of black in showing a loss or deficit on corporate books, but not until the heavy losses of 1921 did the contrast in colors come to have a widely understood meaning. [Saturday Evening Post, July 22, 1922]

updated on July 27, 2022

Definitions of black from WordNet
black (adj.)
being of the achromatic color of maximum darkness; having little or no hue owing to absorption of almost all incident light;
rich black soil
black leather jackets
as black as coal
black (adj.)
of or belonging to a racial group especially of sub-Saharan African origin; "a great people--a black people--...injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization"- Martin Luther King Jr.;
black (adj.)
marked by anger or resentment or hostility;
black looks
black words
black (adj.)
offering little or no hope; "Life in the Aran Islands has always been bleak and difficult"- J.M.Synge;
the future looked black
Synonyms: bleak / dim
black (adj.)
stemming from evil characteristics or forces; wicked or dishonorable; "the scheme of some sinister intelligence bent on punishing him"-Thomas Hardy;
a black lie
black deeds
his black heart has concocted yet another black deed
Synonyms: dark / sinister
black (adj.)
(of events) having extremely unfortunate or dire consequences; bringing ruin; "such doctrines, if true, would be absolutely fatal to my theory"- Charles Darwin; "it is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it"- Douglas MacArthur;
black (adj.)
(of the face) made black especially as with suffused blood;
a face black with fury
Synonyms: blackened
black (adj.)
extremely dark;
a black moonless night
through the pitch-black woods
Synonyms: pitch-black / pitch-dark
black (adj.)
harshly ironic or sinister;
black humor
Synonyms: grim / mordant
black (adj.)
(of intelligence operations) deliberately misleading;
black propaganda
black (adj.)
distributed or sold illicitly;
the black economy pays no taxes
Synonyms: bootleg / black-market / contraband / smuggled
black (adj.)
(used of conduct or character) deserving or bringing disgrace or shame; "Man...has written one of his blackest records as a destroyer on the oceanic islands"- Rachel Carson;
black (adj.)
(of coffee) without cream or sugar;
black (adj.)
soiled with dirt or soot;
with feet black from playing outdoors
his shirt was black within an hour
Synonyms: smutty
black (n.)
the quality or state of the achromatic color of least lightness (bearing the least resemblance to white);
Synonyms: blackness / inkiness
black (n.)
total absence of light;
in the black of night
Synonyms: total darkness / lightlessness / blackness / pitch blackness
black (n.)
(board games) the darker pieces;
black (n.)
black clothing (worn as a sign of mourning);
the widow wore black
black (v.)
make or become black;
Synonyms: blacken / melanize / melanise
Black (n.)
British chemist who identified carbon dioxide and who formulated the concepts of specific heat and latent heat (1728-1799);
Synonyms: Joseph Black
Black (n.)
popular child actress of the 1930's (born in 1928);
Synonyms: Shirley Temple Black / Shirley Temple
Black (n.)
a person with African ancestry, "Negro" and "Negroid" are archaic and pejorative today;
Etymologies are not definitions. From, not affiliated with etymonline.