Why is Yellow Called Yellow?


Colors are very important in our lives. They help us know what things are, like when to stop or go at traffic lights, and they make our world beautiful. Each color can make us feel different things. For example, blue can make us feel calm, and red can make us feel excited or alert.

One color that stands out is yellow. It’s the color of the sun, which makes us feel warm and happy. It’s also the color of many flowers and fruits. But have you ever wondered why we call this bright and cheerful color “yellow”? It’s a word we use all the time, but most of us don’t know where it comes from.

In this article, we’re going to explore the story behind the name “yellow.” We’ll look at where the word comes from and why we use it for this particular color. Join me as we dive into the colorful history of yellow and discover the reasons behind its name.

Exploration of the Word “Yellow” in English

An open book in a library

The word “yellow” in English has a long and fascinating history. It comes from the Old English word “geolu” or “geolwe,” which means yellow. This word is related to the Proto-Germanic word “gelwaz,” showing that the color’s name has deep roots in the Germanic languages. Over centuries, the pronunciation and spelling have evolved into the word we use today: yellow. This evolution reflects the natural changes in language over time as words adapt to the needs and tongues of their speakers.

Comparison with Other Languages

When we look at other languages, we find that many have words for yellow that sound quite different from the English term. For example, in Spanish, yellow is “amarillo,” in French, it’s “jaune,” and in Mandarin Chinese, it’s “huángsè.” These differences highlight the diverse ways cultures have developed their languages and named colors. Interestingly, in some languages, the word yellow is closely related to gold or the sun, emphasizing the color’s natural associations and importance in human life.

Historical Origins of the Term and Its Evolution Over Time

The historical origins of the term “yellow” trace back to the very roots of the Indo-European language family, suggesting that the recognition and naming of this color are ancient. The word’s evolution mirrors the development of languages and the interactions between different cultures throughout history. For example, the Latin word for yellow, “galbinus,” has contributed to the development of words in Romance languages, showing how the movement of people and ideas has influenced language.

In ancient times, the color yellow often had positive associations linked to sunlight, gold, and the divine. Over time, however, its meanings have shifted and expanded, reflecting changes in society, technology, and artistic expression. The evolution of the word “yellow” is a testament to the dynamic nature of language and the enduring significance of color in human culture.

Yellow in Ancient Cultures

Tellow water color art

Yellow in Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, yellow held a sacred and esteemed place. It was closely associated with gold, which was believed to be the flesh of the gods, particularly the sun god Ra. This divine connection made yellow a color of immortality and power. Egyptians used yellow extensively in tomb paintings and artifacts to ensure the deceased had a divine connection in the afterlife. The pigment they often used came from ochre, a natural earth pigment, which was abundant and accessible, influencing its prominence in their color palette.

Yellow in Ancient China

Yellow in ancient China was imbued with a profound significance, as it was the color of the Earth in the Five Elements theory, symbolizing balance and center. It became the imperial color during the Tang dynasty when only the emperor was allowed to wear yellow robes, signifying his supreme authority and divine status. The source of yellow pigments varied, including minerals and plants, which were carefully selected to produce a variety of shades for different uses. The reverence for yellow was tied to its natural sources and the philosophical meanings attributed to those sources, reflecting the harmony between humanity and nature.

Yellow in Ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, yellow had diverse associations, ranging from positive to negative connotations. It was the color of the goddess Venus, representing love and beauty, which shows its positive aspect. However, yellow also had a darker side; it was sometimes associated with betrayal or mourning. Romans used saffron and other natural dyes to produce yellow fabrics, demonstrating the influence of trade and conquest in diversifying their sources of pigments. The varying perceptions of yellow in Rome reflect the complexity of color symbolism in cultural contexts.

Influence of Natural Occurrences and Resources

The perception and naming of yellow in ancient cultures were significantly influenced by the natural environment and available resources. The colors that could be produced depended on the materials that were accessible, such as minerals, plants, and animals. These natural sources not only determined the shades of yellow that could be created but also imbued the color with symbolic meanings based on their origins.

For instance, the rarity and value of gold influenced the perception of yellow as a noble and divine color. Similarly, the availability of certain plants or minerals for dyes could elevate the status of yellow in a culture’s visual and material culture. This relationship between natural occurrences and cultural significance underscores the deep connection between humans and their environment in shaping the symbolism and use of color throughout history.

Linguistic and Psychological Perspectives

Yellow pen on yellow background

Linguistic Perspectives

  • Color Naming Across Cultures: Studies in linguistics have found that the way cultures name colors can vary widely. Some languages have numerous words for different shades of yellow, while others might group various shades under a single term. This diversity reflects how language, culture, and environment shape color perception and categorization.
  • Basic Color Terms: Research by Berlin and Kay suggests that all languages develop color terms in a specific order, with terms for black and white typically developed first, followed by red, and eventually leading to terms for colors like yellow. This indicates a universal pattern in how humans perceive and prioritize colors.
  • Language and Thought: The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis posits that the language we speak influences how we think and perceive the world, including colors. Thus, the way yellow is named and categorized in a language could affect how speakers of that language perceive the color.

Psychological Perspectives

  • Emotional and Psychological Effects: Yellow is often associated with happiness, optimism, and warmth, reflecting its connection to sunlight and spring. However, it can also evoke feelings of caution or anxiety, as seen in its use in warning signs and signals. This dual nature showcases the complex psychological impact of yellow.
  • Color Preferences: People’s preferences for colors, including yellow, can be influenced by their cultural background, personal experiences, and even psychological state. Studies have shown that color preferences can shift over time and in different contexts.
  • Perception and Attention: Yellow is one of the most visible colors to the human eye, especially against a dark background. This high visibility explains its use in attention-grabbing contexts, from safety gear to advertising. The psychological principle of the “isolation effect” or “Von Restorff effect” suggests that items in a contrasting color, like yellow, are more likely to be remembered.

Interplay Between Linguistics and Psychology

  • Cultural Variations: The linguistic categorization of yellow and its psychological effects can vary significantly across cultures, reflecting differing environmental factors, cultural values, and historical contexts.
  • Evolution of Perception: The evolution of color names in a language, including terms for yellow, may reflect a combination of natural environmental factors and the psychological needs of a society. This interplay highlights the dynamic relationship between language development and color perception.

These linguistic and psychological perspectives provide a multidimensional understanding of how yellow is perceived, named, and utilized across different cultures and contexts, underscoring the deep interconnections between language, thought, and human experience.

Yellow Through the Ages

Yellow oil paint

The color yellow has journeyed through history, embodying various meanings and playing pivotal roles in different cultures and eras. This journey reflects the evolving human relationship with color, both in terms of its aesthetic appreciation and its symbolic weight.

The Middle Ages and Renaissance

  • Symbolism in Religious Art: During the Middle Ages, yellow found its place in religious art, often used to depict halos and divine light, symbolizing divinity and spiritual enlightenment. However, it also had negative connotations, used to mark out Judas Iscariot or heretics, highlighting the dual symbolism of colors.
  • Renaissance Brightness: In the Renaissance, artists began to explore the vibrancy of yellow in their works, utilizing it to bring light and depth to their paintings. The development of new pigments expanded the palette, allowing for more nuanced shades and intensities. Yellow in this era represented knowledge, wealth, and the divine, echoing ancient associations while embracing humanistic values.

The 18th and 19th Centuries

  • Fashion and Social Status: Yellow became a fashionable color in the 18th century, worn by both men and women as a sign of wealth and style. However, its popularity waxed and waned with fashion trends and social attitudes.
  • Impressionist Revolution: The 19th-century Impressionist painters embraced yellow to capture the effects of light and shadow, transforming the color into a symbol of innovation and artistic rebellion. Artists like Vincent van Gogh used yellow to convey emotions and mood, pushing the boundaries of how color could be perceived and utilized in art.

The 20th Century to Present

  • Cultural and Political Symbols: In the 20th century, yellow took on new roles in the political and cultural spheres, from suffragette sashes to ribbons symbolizing support for troops or awareness of specific causes. Its visibility and impact made it a powerful tool for communication and solidarity.
  • Technology and Design: With the advent of digital technology, yellow found a new life in the design world, using in logos, interfaces, and advertising to grab attention and evoke positivity and energy. The development of new synthetic pigments and dyes expanded the range of yellows available, making them a staple in designers’ palettes.

Evolving Perceptions

  • Psychological Impact: Research into color psychology has shown that yellow can have a stimulating effect on the mind and is associated with happiness, creativity, and warmth. These studies have influenced how yellow is used in environments, products, and marketing to evoke desired responses.
  • Environmental and Social Awareness: In recent years, yellow has been adopted by various movements to represent caution, hope, and the call for action, particularly in environmental and social campaigns. Its high visibility ensures that the message stands out, demonstrating how the symbolic use of yellow continues to evolve in response to contemporary challenges and values.

Yellow’s journey through the ages illustrates the dynamic interplay between color, culture, and consciousness. It remains a vibrant part of our visual and symbolic vocabulary, continuously shaped by artistic, social, and technological changes.

Modern Interpretations and Uses of Yellow

Yellow background with circle and dotted line

The color yellow continues to hold a significant place in contemporary society, adapting to new meanings and applications while retaining its historical roots. Its versatility and vibrancy have made it a favorite in various fields, from art and design to marketing and social movements.

Art and Design

  • Visual Arts: Contemporary artists use yellow to evoke specific emotions, draw attention, and make bold statements. Its application ranges from minimalist compositions to complex multimedia installations, showcasing yellow’s ability to convey joy, caution, and everything in between.
  • Interior Design: In interior design, yellow is often used to create a sense of warmth and brightness. It can energize a space, promote a welcoming atmosphere, and even stimulate creativity and mental activity. Designers might use it as an accent color or in more muted shades to soften its impact.


  • Runway Trends: Yellow has made its mark on the fashion industry, appearing in seasonal collections as a statement color that captures the eye. Designers play with its hues to suit various styles, from pastel lemon for spring to rich mustard for autumn.
  • Streetwear and Accessories: Beyond the runway, yellow finds its way into streetwear and accessories, offering a pop of color that can complement or contrast with everyday outfits. It symbolizes confidence and a sense of fun, appealing to those looking to make a fashion statement.

Technology and Digital Media

  • Branding and Marketing: Yellow’s high visibility makes it an excellent choice for logos and marketing campaigns, especially in the digital realm, where capturing attention quickly is crucial. Brands use yellow to convey optimism, innovation, and youthfulness.
  • User Interface Design: In UI design, yellow can highlight important elements, guide users through a digital experience, and signal caution or attention without alarming users. Its effectiveness in drawing the eye makes it a strategic choice for call-to-action buttons, notifications, and warning messages, balancing visibility with a sense of urgency.

Psychology and Communication

  • Color Psychology: Yellow’s psychological effects are leveraged in various contexts to evoke feelings of happiness, encourage communication, and stimulate mental processes. Its association with sunlight and warmth contributes to its use in environments intended to promote positive mental states and creativity.
  • Symbolic Uses in Social Movements: Yellow ribbons, for instance, have become symbols of support for military forces and awareness for specific causes, such as suicide prevention. This use of yellow demonstrates its capacity to communicate solidarity, hope, and urgent calls to action in a visually impactful way.

Environmental and Safety Applications

  • Safety Gear and Signage: Due to its high visibility, yellow is commonly used in safety gear (like vests and helmets) and warning signs. Its ability to stand out in various light conditions makes it an essential color for conveying caution and ensuring safety in workplaces, public spaces, and roads.
  • Sustainable Initiatives: Some environmental movements adopt yellow in their logos and campaigns to draw attention to issues like solar energy and the protection of bees. The color’s natural association with sunlight and flowers underscores the importance of these initiatives in maintaining ecological balance.

Cultural Significance

In cultures around the world, yellow plays a role in festivals and celebrations, often symbolizing joy, prosperity, and new beginnings. Its use in decorations, clothing, and rituals reinforces the color’s positive connotations and its ability to bring people together in shared happiness.

The Digital Age

In the realm of digital communication, yellow is prominently featured in the emoji palette. The choice of yellow for smiley faces and other emotive symbols universalizes expressions of emotion, transcending cultural and language barriers in our increasingly connected world.


Yellow is a color that brightens our world in many ways. From fashion and art to safety signs and celebrations, it brings happiness, energy, and caution. Yellow has a long history but is still very important today, helping us communicate feelings and stay safe. Whether in a beautiful painting or a simple emoji, yellow continues to spread joy and warmth everywhere. We hope this article helped you learn more about the origins of the name ‘yellow.’

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