Black is more than just a colour - although some would say it is not even a colour. Objects are perceived as what we call black when all visible light is absorbed by the object. Many animals, plants and geographical features have black in their name in relation to their colouring. People of African descent are often called black, although their skin is actually dark brown. According to the context, black may refer to skin colour, racial ancestry or ethnic group.
Historically, black had sinister, negative, or satanic associations, in stark contrast to white. These days black more often has positive connotations of being powerful, authoritative, chic, or sexy. Black is often considered to be slimming in terms of clothing, yet black objects are usually perceived as heavier and stronger than lighter colours.
This A to Z covers just some of the occurrences of black in nomenclature.
The All Blacks are New Zealand's national rugby union team. Their original uniform was a dark blue jersey with dark shorts but soon after they started touring, a more uniform black top and bottom was chosen. A New Zealand journalist referred to them as 'All Blacks' and the nickname stuck.
They are a high-ranking team with a winning formula that has seen them champions of Tri-Nations nine times out of the last 13 years when the Tri-Nations, which include Australia and South Africa rugby union teams began. Their winning record stretches back many years; the All Blacks won their first test match against Australia in 1903. More recently, they were named Team of the Year in 2005, 2006 and 2008 by the International Rugby Board (IRB). Since the 1900s the All Blacks have been renowned for performing the haka before each match.
Black Arts was a term historically used for black magic. This involved using malevolent powers to cause misfortune as well as necromancy1.
In the gay leather world of BDSM, a black bandana is sometimes used as a secret code to let others know one's preferences. A black bandana hanging from the right rear pocket indicates the wearer has masochist tendencies, while sadists hang theirs from the left rear pocket.
Blackballing stems from an archaic system of secret voting using black or white balls placed in a covered box. Individuals could be denied membership of a club, secret society or organisation by the placement of black ball(s). In some instances only one black ball was required for the noes to prevail, then the candidate was truly 'blackballed'. This system can also be used to vote current members out, after an infringement of rules or other transgression. It is a practice that is believed to be still in use by the Freemasons.
The ancient Greeks are thought to have been the first to use this form of voting, using light and dark seashells. The Greek word for seashell, 'ostrakon', forms the root of the English word ostracise.
Blackbeard was a fearsome British pirate in the early 1700s, operating in the Atlantic and Caribbean. His real name is thought to be Edward Teach. He sported an impressive black beard and was reputed to wear lighted matches in his hair and to drink rum and gunpowder. He met his end eventually at the hands of the Royal Navy.
A black belt is the highest grade in most martial arts such as Karate and Tae Kwon Do. Black symbolises the combination of all other colours; gaining the Black Belt is just the start of true achievement, understanding and wisdom, working towards a union of the mind and the body within oneself and with the universe.
BlackBerry is the trade name for a range of smart phones and tablet personal computers. The phones are distinguished by their width and qwerty keypad below the screen.
Blackboards are large panels on which one may write or draw with a chalk. Whatever is written or drawn on the blackboard can be erased easily, so it can be reused indefinitely. In older times, these boards, some of which were small hand-held pieces, were made of slate, which explains that they are called 'black' even though nowadays they may be green or brown. Blackboards can also be made from vinyl and suspended between two rollers to extend the writing surface. Special blackboard paint (or chalkboard paint in other colours) can be bought to create an erasable surface anywhere this might be desirable such as the wall of a child's bedroom.
Blackboards are often associated with classrooms and mathematicians. Another place where they are commonly found is in pubs or restaurants, where they are used to advertise the ever-changing 'Today's Specials' or 'Beer of the Month', or used for scoring in darts matches. Sometimes, one may also find them covering public toilet walls, where the bored user can express their unbridled creativity or philosophical moods, without preventing the next day's users from doing the same, as it would be cleaned off for the following day.
A black bomber (also known as black beauty or black bird) is an illegal drug, a mixture of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, popular in the 1960s.
To be in someone's black books means that you are in disgrace or out of favour. Historically, certain establishments used a black book to record the names of those who committed misdeeds and were punished.
On the other hand, a little black book is a treasured possession of the single man. In it, he keeps the phone numbers and addresses of all his various girlfriends.
The Blackbottom was a popular dance, originating in New Orleans in the 1920s. It features sinuous hip movements.
The black box is the common term for a flight data recorder (FDR), or accident data recorder (ADR). Its primary use is for investigations after an aircraft accident; it was designed and built to be almost indestructible. For minimum risk, it is usually situated in the tail section of an aircraft, the part in which it has the best chance of remaining intact in the event of an accident. Locating the black box, which is actually painted with bright orange heat resistant paint, for high visibility, is often the second priority in an accident, with the rescue of survivors and recovery of bodies being the first. The black box can also be used to monitor the aircraft's performance, and run air safety checks.
Black cabs, also known as Hackney Carriages, are a popular sight in London, where they originated, crawling along with the many red buses2. Nowadays they are not always black – they can be any colour in the rainbow and, more often than not, have an advertising slogan on the side doors; however, even the most colourful cab is still technically a black cab.
There are also a multitude of minicabs, also known as taxis. The main difference between a black cab and a minicab, is that you have to telephone to arrange for transportation with a minicab, whereas you can legally hail a black cab on the street.
A black cap is a nine-inch square of black cloth that a judge put on top of his wig when pronouncing a death sentence. This is an ancient custom, thought to protect the judge from God's anger. The design stems from Tudor bonnets worn by barristers before the introduction of wigs. Although the death penalty has been abolished in the UK, judges still carry a triangle of black silk.
Depending on a person's superstition, or where you live, it's said a black cat running in front of you means good luck in the UK and Ireland or bad luck in the USA. To reverse the curse of bad luck, simply walk in a circle, then go backward across the spot where it happened and count to 13, chanting a charm or line from the Bible.
Black clothing can have a strong cultural meaning. It can be worn to convey power and authority, to show rebellion or to indicate submission. Priests wear black to demonstrate their subservience to God.
Typically in visual media, 'baddies' wear black and 'goodies' wear white. The use of white for the Imperial Storm troopers in the Star Wars films reversed this trend.
The wearing of black to signify mourning can be dated back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The Victorian royalty and upper classes set the etiquette, defining what type of materials were acceptable as well as the progression through full mourning to half mourning. This applied to women's attire as men usually wore black or dark grey anyway. This social code was gradually taken up by the middle and lower classes too. Black is still a funeral colour in many cultures.
Black comedy refers to finding humour in a tragic event or situation. It may be found in literature, TV programmes, films and used by comedians in their acts. Joseph Heller's Catch 22 is a good example of black comedy in a novel. Peter Shaffer's play Black Comedy is actually a farce, all the action taking place in darkness.
The Black Country is an area of the West Midlands which gained its name in the 1800s during the industrial revolution, as a result of the shallow coal seams mined there as well as the smoke billowing from the many ironwork foundries. These industries have now closed down, but the name remains, giving the area an identity to the pride of its inhabitants.
Black damp is air in which carbon dioxide has replaced oxygen, rendering it deadly. This condition often occurred in unventilated mines. Miners used canaries to warn them of the danger as the birds would die from the lack of oxygen sooner than the men. Later, the Davy lamp was invented in 1815 as a more reliable device.
The Black Death was a terrible disease that struck Europe in the 14th Century. It is estimated that between 30% and 60% of all people died, and the total world population was reduced by more than 20%. The people of the time had never encountered anything like it and had no idea how to prevent it. They called it the Great Death, or the Great Pestilence. The name 'Black Death' was first used a few centuries later - the 'Black' in the name indicates the dire nature of the epidemic, rather than a description of the symptoms of the disease itself.
It is now reckoned that the Black Death was a form of plague, which took three forms, bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic. In history, bubonic plague has been the most common form, with outbreaks recorded as early as 6th Century Byzantium (Istanbul) and as late as 21st Century Oregon. This form is identified by the buboes, or enlarged lymph glands around the neck, groin and arm pits.
The Black Death, on the other hand, was probably the septicaemic variety. It coursed through Europe for three years, between 1347 and 1350, spread by Xenopsylla cheopis, or the rat flea, which carried the bacteria, Yersinia pestis. It started in China and was carried by traders across the then known world.
The nursery rhyme Ring-a-ring-a-roses is often erroneously thought to be based on the plague, likewise the expression 'Bless you' when people sneeze.
The little black dress hanging in some ladies' wardrobes refers to a versatile but simple dress, suitable for all sorts of social occasions and formal events. The expression dates from a Chanel creation in the 1920s.
A black eye, also known as a shiner, is basically a bruise around the eye, usually caused by an injury to the eye region, cheek, or forehead, which in some cases can cause double black eyes. Swelling and formation of the bruise can be quite rapid, due to blood and other fluids collecting in the space around the eye. Like any bruise, a black eye will heal by itself in a few days.
Black Friday was originally another name for Good Friday when clergy wear dark vestments.
In America, the name is commonly used to refer to the Friday after Thanksgiving, the harvest festival which is celebrated annually on the fourth Thursday in November. On Black Friday, eager bargain hunters throng the malls as the retail outlets begin their pre-Christmas promotions. This is said to be one of the busiest shopping days of the year in the USA. The stampede to get the best bargains is a dangerous pursuit, and has in the past caused at least one fatality and numerous injuries.
Black Friday has also been used since at least 1868 to denote various specific dates in connection with political events and financial crises or any Friday on which a disaster occurs, especially if the date is the 13th. These include 15 April, 1921 when some trade unions withdrew support from hard pressed miners in Britain, and 24 September, 1929 in the US when panic hit the stock market. There have been many similar Black Fridays and other days of the week.
A blackguard was originally a lowly kitchen servant who had the chore of looking after the pots and pans. Later it became a general term for a rogue or scoundrel.
Black gold is a term used to describe various items of value that happen to be black or very dark. These include oil, coal, peppercorns, opium and at one time, slaves. The use of Black Gold as a trade name for coffee, compost and software is presumably to imply that these also have high value.
In heraldry, black is called sable. It represents prudence, wisdom and constancy.
A black hole is basically gravity gone mad. It isn't actually black and it's not really a hole. The name was applied when they were only hypothesised, and they became a staple ingredient of science fiction. Now that we know they do actually exist, and understand the essence of what they are, a name change would only confuse matters. The core of the black hole is called the singularity. The opening, where matter gets sucked in, is called the event horizon. This is where you would be 'spaghettified' if you got so close to a black hole that you couldn't escape its gravitational pull. There are two types of black hole:
Remnant of a supernova: a supergiant star, with typically four to ten times as much mass as our Sun, explodes, leaving a core which may collapse to form a black hole. These are the black holes which are invisible, we only know they're there when they are actually feeding.
Supermassive: with a mass typically 100,000 to 1,000,000 times that of our Sun, these lurk at the centre of galaxies, consuming stars for breakfast. We know there is one at the centre of the Milky Way; but it's nothing to worry about as we reside in one of the spiral arms, nowhere near the core. We can 'see' black holes at the centre of other galaxies because the stuff that is being pulled into them by the immense gravitational force speeds up and spews out energy in the form of X-ray radiation as it is torn apart.
Astronomers have worked out that there is a correlation between a galaxy and the supermassive black hole at its core. However, what they don't know is which came first - the galaxy or the black hole. This kind of conundrum is commonly known as the 'chicken and egg question'. Black holes can merge, for example when two (or more) galaxies collide in what is colloquially known as a 'cosmic trainwreck'. The galaxies thrash each other to bits over many millions of years, until they settle down in the form of a brand new galaxy with its stars all orbiting the central black hole, the product of the original two.
The Black Hole of Calcutta was a prison in Fort William, Calcutta where in 1756, the Nawab of Bengal condemned 146 Europeans to spend a night. Only 23 survived the dark, cramped, hot and suffocating conditions. The expression is often used to indicate a place that is similarly unpleasant, though usually to a much lesser degree.
Black ice, also known as 'clear ice', forms when ground moisture from dew or light rain freezes, causing a transparent sheet of ice, revealing the colour of the surface below, which on most roads is usually black asphalt, hence the name 'black ice'. Driving conditions can be hazardous as the black ice is almost invisible. Black ice is not confined to roads; it can also appear on pavements during cold weather spells.
To be in the black is to be solvent, in credit, to be in profit. This is as opposed to being in the red, referring to former banking practice of writing the negative balance of an overdrawn account in red ink.
Jet black likens an object to jet, which is a rich black variety of lignite3. It is very hard but lightweight and can be highly polished and carved. It is regarded as a minor gemstone and has been used for ornaments and jewellery since ancient times.
Blackjack is the card game pontoon (vingt-et-un) or similar. It is popular in casinos. Within the game, a blackjack is a score of 21 achieved with the two cards dealt to a player or the dealer.
Blackjack historically can also be a large leather jug, a pirate flag or a short cosh with a weighted head. In more recent times it is the brand name of a chewy sweet flavoured with aniseed.
A Black Knight apart from being a chess piece, in history or literature would normally be a 'bad' character. Nowadays it is the term used for a company that attempts a hostile takeover of another company.
Blackleg is the name given to someone who continues to work when their fellow workers are on strike.
A Blacklist is a list drawn up of people or businesses with a reputation for bad behaviour, to warn others not to deal with them.
Black Magic is a dark chocolate selection box first marketed in 1933. The early adverts portrayed the box of chocolates as the ultimate romantic gift, entailing an air of secrecy. Television adverts depicted a man dressed in black taking a daring route to deliver a box of Black Magic to a lady while she is absent. He leaves a card on top of the box.
Blackmail is obtaining money or other assets or demanding certain behaviour or actions from someone by using threats. The threat is often to disclose information that the victim wishes to be kept secret.
To have a black mark put against one's name means that people have noticed something bad you have done and will remember it in future. This could be verbal or an actual note on a document such as your employment record. This is similar to being in someone's black book.
Black Market. This is the sale of goods that are rationed, illegal or otherwise restricted, through covert, unofficial channels. The price is usually excessively high. The sellers are known as black marketeers.
Black Maria is a police van used to transport prisoners. It is thought to originate from 1847 in the US where a black woman named Maria who ran a lodging house used to assist in bundling people into police vans. The term came to the UK by 1869.
Black Maria is also a card game, also know as 'Hearts'. Players must avoid winning hearts or the Queen of Spades - Black Maria - as these score penalty points. However if you win all the hearts and Queen of Spades in a round, this wipes out your score.
Black Monday denotes various historic events. Originally it alluded to Easter Monday commemorating Edward III besieging Paris in 1360. Later it referred to 27 February, 1865 when there was a severe storm in Melbourne, Australia. More recently it was 19 October, 1987 when the London Stock Exchange saw a drastic drop in share prices.
A black mood was commonly used to describe a general state of major depression, before all the different categories of depression were introduced into the mental health system. Also known as 'the black dog' – this phrase was originally coined by depression sufferer and English writer Samuel Johnson in the 1780s, but was more notably used by former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, describing his own depression. It has also been an old country phrase to describe a sullen child and a reference to the devil.
Black noise: Colour names given to noise describe the distribution of different frequencies in the noise by comparison with the distribution of frequencies (colours) in the spectrum of visible light. Black noise, rather confusingly, is also called silent noise. It is predominantly zero level with random spikes.
A black operation, often shortened to a black op, is a covert operation or mission, which is typically illegal. It could include anything from placing a bug on someone's telephone, to kidnap or even assassination. However, the organisation which ordered the operation takes no responsibility and will go to extreme lengths to cover their tracks. The black ops are commonly carried out by military organisations, such as the SAS.
Black and orange are traditionally associated with Halloween. The origins of this are not certain. Orange may simply be related to the seasonal Autumn leaves and pumpkins or it may have historical significance of strength and endurance. Black may be for concealment at night, or because of its association with death.
A blackout is a sudden loss of illumination, or a loss of consciousness.
The Black Panther was the nickname of the murderer Donald Neilson because of the black hood that he wore as a disguise. He was arrested and convicted after a nine-month search in 1975. The name was also adopted by a militant African-American organisation in the 1960s.
The Penny Black, which has a black-and-white portrait of Queen Victoria's head in profile, was the world's first adhesive postage stamp, issued in London, UK in 1840, at the cost of one penny. The stamp has the word 'Postage' along the top, and 'One Penny' along the bottom. Today, the Penny Black has a value of around £3,000 to £4,000 (mint condition) and is highly sought after by stamp collectors.
The Black Pope is a disparaging term for the head of the Jesuits.
Black Power as a term came to the forefront in the 1960s used by Stokely Carmichael, a civil rights campaigner. He was born in Trinidad but his family moved to America when he was 9 years old. There has been some controversy in its political use by African Americans, in some cases promoting integration and equal rights, but in others seeking black separatism. The symbol is a raised, black clenched fist. Black power celebrates and promotes black culture, especially in art and literature.
Black Pudding, which is an acquired taste, is a savoury dish, not a pudding in the modern use of the word. It is essentially a large sausage made from boiled pig's blood and fat, which is then bound with barley or oatmeal. Black pudding is served sliced and fried, customary as part of a fry-up breakfast. The most popular place for producing and consuming black pudding in the UK is Lancashire.
The World Black Pudding throwing Competition is held annually in Bury, Lancashire. The contestants throw black puddings at a row of Yorkshire puddings balanced on a wall; the one who knocks the most off is the winner.
Black quarter is another name for blackleg, an infectious disease of sheep and cattle caused by the soil bacterium Clostridium chauvoei. Afflicted animals display painful, gaseous swellings in the muscles, usually of the upper parts of the legs. It is also the name for a disease of potatoes and cruciferous plants such as cabbage, characterised by dry, black lesions on the base of the stem. In cabbage it is caused by a fungus, Phoma lingam, and in potatoes by a bacterium, Erwinia atroseptica.
Black Rod – full title: Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod – is an official in the House of Lords. His duties include security, maintaining order and control of access to the House. However, he is best known for his role in the state opening of the UK parliament each November and after General Elections. He summons the MPs from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. Although they are expecting him, they slam the door in his face and he has to knock three times with his ceremonial mace. This is to symbolise the fact that the House of Commons is independent and does not have to take notice of Lords or Queens. The MPs then follow him to the House of Lords to hear the Queen's Speech although they know the way and some of them helped write the speech anyway.
Black September is the name of a Palestinian terrorist group formed in the early 1970s. They were responsible for the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics
Black sheep: there is one of these in almost every family, the one that doesn't conform to what society considers as acceptable behaviour and causes embarrassment to the family. The term black sheep originated from the occasional birth of a lamb with a less valuable black fleece4, as opposed to the regular white fleece. The superstitious looked on this as being the mark of the devil.
The nursery rhyme, Baa, Baa Black Sheep has in recent times caused some controversy, with a couple of nurseries in Oxfordshire re-phrasing the children's rhyme to Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep. They were however a tiny minority, and no action was taken in the mainstream UK education system - any advice to do so was ridiculed.
Blackshirts was the name given to Mussolini's Fascist militia.
The Black Shuck, also known as 'Old Shuck', is the name of a supposedly ghostly black dog which haunts the coastline of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. It is believed the word 'shuck' comes from the old English word scucca, meaning demon. The sightings of the black shuck are said to date back to pre-Viking times – it may be one of Great Britain's oldest phantoms.
As with most legends, there are various conflicting descriptions. Some have described the shuck as being a large, shaggy dog, the size of a small calf or as big as a horse, with red eyes as big as saucers, or green eyes, or just one eye. It is sometimes referred to as a bad omen, as after sighting the black shuck, the person suffers the death of a friend or relative. Other tales say the black shuck acted as an escort for ladies, ensuring their safe travel. Most sightings, however, were nothing more than a frightening experience.
The Black and Tans refers to a British armed force sent to Ireland in 1920 to quell Republican rebels. The name derives both from their uniforms - army khaki with black belts and green caps – as well as being the name of a pack of hounds in Tipperary.
Black and Tan is also an alcoholic drink, known as a beer cocktail, comprising a blend of ale and stout, or sometimes lager and stout. To make Black and Tan, firstly pour half a pint of ale or lager into a pint glass, and then, using the back of a spoon held against the glass, very gently pour the stout onto the top of the ale or lager, so that the stout sits on the top. Serve and enjoy.
There is also a brand of coffee called black and tan.
Black tie is a dress code indicating that the event will be a semi-formal one, as opposed to white tie or full evening dress. A man will be expected to wear a black dinner jacket, black trousers, a white dress shirt5 and a bow tie, traditionally black. Ladies would be expected to wear a cocktail dress on or below the knee for a daytime or early evening event. For an evening function, a long dress or ball gown with discreet jewellery.
Black Light is ultraviolet light, that is, light with a wavelength beyond the violet end of the visible spectrum. Black light bulbs appear black when off and a purple glow is seen when they are switched on. Fluorescent and white objects glow under this illumination. This is because the objects contain phosphors which emit visible light in response to the UVA radiation falling on them. Teeth and nails naturally contain some phosphors and white clothing contains phosphors from detergents. The light bulbs are constructed with a coating or filter to absorb harmful UVB and UVC emissions6. Apart from the fun use of this light in amusement parks, discos and so on, there are many serious applications. In conjunction with fluorescent dye, black light can be useful to forensic scientists at crime scenes, repairmen checking for leaks and to detect counterfeit currency. Antique experts can date paintings and detect fakes as old paints do not contains phosphors in contrast to modern paints.
Black velvet is a cocktail drink made with stout and champagne7 or, in the 'poor man's version', cider, preferably white cider. The black velvet is made of equal amounts of each ingredient. Both should be chilled. Using a champagne flute, or a pint glass if using cider, half fill with the champagne or cider; next you need to bend a table spoon, not your best silver, so that it resembles a ladle, and then use this to very gently pour the stout into the bent spoon so that it overflows and slowly runs on top of your champagne or cider. The end result should be that the stout sits on top of your champagne or cider. Serve and enjoy.
Black velvet is believed to have originated in Brooks's Club, London, during the mourning of Prince Albert in 1861. Apparently, a steward at the club decided that the champagne should also be in mourning, and so added stout to it, thereby creating the black velvet.
Black Watch is the nickname for the Royal Highland Regiment, partly because of their dark coloured tartan and also for their original function of keeping watch on the Highlands.
Black Wednesday refers to 16 September, 1992, when the British Conservative government failed to keep sterling above its agreed lower limit. The government was therefore forced to withdraw the Pound Sterling from European Exchange Rate Mechanism; at the cost of approximately £3.4 billion.
Black and white is a simple combination of stark contrast, used to great effect in drawing, photography, visual illusions and Op Art8.
The Black Widow spider can be found throughout the USA, but primarily in the south of the country. This is one case in which the female of the species is definitely deadlier than the male, as female Black Widows are extremely venomous9 and are about double the size of the males. However, the belief, from which the name originates, that the females eat the males after mating is generally inaccurate, though it is not unknown. Black Widows are solitary and any other form of approach from any other spider would probably lead to their being eaten. Female Black Widows will hatch about 100 young but they eat each other and only a small number will survive.
Black-coated workers is a nickname for prunes in their role as laxatives. The term was popularised in a 1941 BBC radio programme 'The Kitchen Front'.
X is the new black is an expression used to indicate that a particular style or colour has become the most popular in a particular range.
Black on yellow or vice versa, used for lettering, provides highly visible text. This stark contrast is used for traffic warning signs and health and safety danger signs. Many visually impaired people prefer yellow text on a black background on computer screens.
The Black Zodiac is a set fictional zodiac signs created by an entertainment company for their 2001 remake of the 1960 film Thir13en Ghosts, also known as, 13 Ghosts and Thirteen Ghosts. Each of the invented zodiac signs represents the ghost of a character in the ghost hunting horror film.