Jan
14
2011

What can be red, white, black or yellow and is wet?

Lips (photos by helgabj, arhadetruit, ToriMBC and Yle is dreaming - CC-BY)

Some people may immediately think that the flag of the German Reich—or the Nazi flag—is red, white, black and yellow (with gold fringes for the yellow). But they did not read the question carefully; it asks about one color or the other.

So maybe tulips? There are red, white and yellow tulips, and more seldom, black tulips, but they have also been around for a while. Alexandre Dumas (père, the elder) wrote a novel with the title The Black Tulip, published in 1850, but set in the Holland in the 17th century. The title refers to the attempt to win a 100,000 guilder prize for breeding a black tulip. But “all wet”? That would not be good for the blossoms.

The answer is something that is literally “all wet”, seas named with the colors: the Red Sea, of course, and the Black Sea, and the Yellow Sea, and—less well-known—the White Sea.

Why are they so named?

The Yellow Sea, off the northern coast of China, is indeed a little yellow, since the Yellow River flows into it, dumping fine silt in the sea.

The Red Sea was called that centuries before our calendar. A third century BC translation from Hebrew to Greek used the expression, later taken over by the Romans: “mare rubrum”. There are various explanations for the name, whereby one must keep in mind that the Exodus and other Biblical references could only apply to the most northern portion of what we now call the Red Sea.

Some think that the more correct translation of the Hebrew “yam suph” should be “Sea of Reeds”, since “suph” alone means “reed”, and that maybe the incident in Exodus was across a lake of reeds, rather than across the Gulf of Suez to the Sinai Peninsula, which is hardly a route that the Israelites would have chosen.

Others like the idea that “red” was an expression for south, based on the knowledge that some ancient languages related colors to the cardinal directions, also because Herodotus (5th century BC) refers to it as both the Red and the Southern Sea. Still others think it may have gotten its name because it borders on the Egyptian Desert, which the ancient Egyptians called the “Red Land”. There are a couple more theories, but they seem less logical.

The Black Sea is now called that in the languages of all the countries bordering the sea. If the name was originally based on an early people’s impression of the sea or its location relative to where they lived, this must be a relatively recent development. If “black” is a reference to north (like red to south), Black Sea could not be appropriate for early peoples on its northern shore, which rules out someone’s theory about the name’s deriving from Scythian-Iranic, since the Scythians only saw the sea to the south and west. The Turks, who migrated into Anatolia about a thousand years ago, call it “Karadeniz”, literally: black sea. Whether “black” relates to north or to an impression of the sea is unclear. Someone attributes the Greek name “Pontos melas” (black sea) to Euripides, who lived in Herodotus’ time, and also refutes the black=north theory. 1)

Modern Turks explain that “Karadeniz” describes the sea as seen from

the south, not reflecting sunlight, in contrast to the sparkling “Akdeniz” (white sea), the Turkish name for the Mediterranean, especially that south of Anatolia, since they now refer to the Aegean as” Ege Denizli”.

The White Sea, for the rest of the world, is the inlet of the Barents Sea south of the Kola Peninsula in northern Russia. Its most important harbor is Archangel (Russian: Arkhangelsk), centuries ago, Russia’s most important harbor.

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