Sum: Borrowing of French <marron>

Larry Trask larryt at COGS.SUSX.AC.UK
Thu Jun 5 00:08:14 UTC 2003

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A few days ago I posted a question about the borrowing of the French color term <marron> 'brown' into practically all of the other Romance languages. My purpose was to find out why this word has spread so far and seemingly so
rapidly, sometimes even displacing other words in the process.  In the end,
I didn't find out much about this, but I did learn a great deal about the word, in French and in other languages.

As a word for 'chestnut', <marron> competes in French with the inherited word <chataigne>.  Most sources agree that <marron> originates in the local
speech of the Lyon area, where it is described as "pre-Roman".  But apparently there is a second story on the table, which sees the French word
as borrowed from Italian <marrone> 'a certain large edible chestnut', from medieval Latin <marro> 'stone, rock'.  Well, maybe.

My estimated date of first use as a color term in French was wrong.  We have <couleur de maron> (not really a color term) in 1706, attestations of
<mar(r)on> as "un nom et un adjectif de couleur très courant" from 1750 (_Dictionnaire historique de la langue française_), and a firm date of 1765 as the first attestation of the word as a color term (_Le Robert_ and Dauzat, in the Encyclopédie, of all places).  Perhaps, then, this is more a learned word than a popular one, in origin?

On the other hand, the word is rare as a color term in French texts until well into the 19th century, and apparently it's less common than <brun> until well into the 20th century.  And its status as an established color term is called into question by expressions such as "la redingote d'un brun
marron" (Balzac 1837), where it seems clear that <brun> is the basic color term and <marron> is no more than a modifier, as in English 'chestnut brown'.

Interestingly, the color term <marron> has never crossed the Atlantic.  The
word is not used as a color term in Canada.  One suggestion is that pressure from English 'brown' has favored retention of the inherited <brun>
and disfavored acceptance of the innovating term.

English 'maroon' is first recorded in a 1791 translation of an important French book on dyeing.  Presumably chestnut dye is dark red, rather than brown, accounting for the distinctive sense of the English term.  But I am told that 'maroon' does indeed mean 'brown' in many extraterritorial Englishes.

Now to Spanish.  I am told that Mark Davies's 100-million-word Spanish corpus shows no instances of the color term <marrón> in the 18th century,
and only about 16 in the 19th century, all of these occurring in just three
authors: Leopoldo Alas (in 1876), Amós de Escalante (in 1866), and Felipe
Trigo (in 1890 and in other works).  This information is consistent with a very late establishment of <marrón> as a color term in Spanish.  But I'm still amazed that Corominas doesn't even enter the word in his etymological

However, contrary to my surmise, <marrón> is widely used for 'brown' in American Spanish, or at least in South America.  One respondent expressed surprise at this, since Quebec generally maintains closer ties with France than Spanish America does with Spain.

For Portuguese, I am assured that <marrom> is used in Brazil, just as in Portugal.

For Romanian, I am assured that <maro> is today the ordinary and only word for 'brown', apart from eyes and hair, but so far I don't know when the word became established in Romanian.

For the other Romance languages, I have no new information.

So, I'm still puzzled.  Especially given the information suggesting that
<marron> became established as a basic color term only rather late in French, why has it recently proved so irresistible to all the other Romance-speakers in the world -- except to the French-speakers in Canada?

Apart from the odd English case, I haven't discovered any non-Romance languages which have accepted the word, except for Basque, into which the Spanish form has very recently been borrowed as <marroi> -- apparently not recorded in writing before 1977.

Maybe the story is bigger than <marron>.  I note that French <gris> 'gray' has also been borrowed very widely into the other Romance languages, and this time into at least three others: Basque, Greek and Turkish.

My thanks to Richard Coates, Radu Daniliuc, Isabel Forbes, Lee Hartman, Steve Long, Ricardo Paderni, Marc Picard, Jean-François Smith, John Charles Smith, Laura Wright and Roger Wright.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at

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