5 Facts About the Color Purple

The color purple has a fascinating history.
The color purple has a fascinating history. / Heibaihui/Getty Images

Activist Byllye Avery once said that “purple puts us in touch with the part of ourselves that is regal. Purple is the queen in all women; it helps us keep our backs straight and heads held high.” Although some will argue that it's not a real color (more on that below), many cultures and religions throughout history have treated purple as the color of royalty and luxury. Here are five facts about this fabulously unique color.

1. Tyrian purple was expensive to make.

Tyrian purple, sometimes called Phoenician purple, is a reddish-purple pigment first produced around 1600 BCE. As Pliny the Elder explains in The Natural History, it was made from the secretion of decomposing tropical sea snails. It was complicated and time-consuming to make a garment using the hue, as it took days for the dye to develop the right shade of purple. It also apparently smelled really bad.

Since the production was so intensive, garments made with the dye were extremely expensive to purchase. Only nobility could afford it. When the production formula was released in 60 CE, Emperor Nero banned the color for all others. He created a sumptuary law that made it a crime—punishable by death—anyone other than himself to wear the shade. The color fell out of use during the 1400s and wasn't discovered again for centuries. Today, there are some who still make the dye, but the practice is rare due to the widespread use of artificial dyes and the diminishing snail population. 

2. Various cultures view purple as the color of royalty.

Many cultures and religions revered purple, largely because of its scarcity. In China, purple dye was made out of purple gromwell, a plant native to eastern Asia. The dye didn’t always stick to fabric, so using it for clothing was extremely expensive. The Byzantine Empire believed purple to be a gift from God. The oldest surviving text of the New Testament, the Codex purpureus Rossanensis, is on purple pages with gold and silver lettering. The births of emperors born into power took place in purple rooms to distinguish them from those who only rose to power by war.

The Romans weren't the only ones to ban non-royalty from wearing the coveted color. In 1547, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was charged and executed for committing treason against Henry VIII after, in part, being seen wearing the color of the king. Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth I also refused to let anyone but royalty wear the color. 

3. Technically, purple doesn’t exist.

There are seven colors within the visible spectrum of light: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Each color has its own corresponding wavelength and frequencies. When these waves overlap, they create a new color. Sir Isaac Newton made this discovery in the 1600s, when he discovered that white light is a mix of all seven colors bouncing back and being perceived by the receptors in the eyes. 

Purple is a mix of the red and blue waves overlapping as they bounce back. Purple (and all it shades) are the colors our brain interprets when looking at red and blue together. While some people may point out that violet is a spectral color, violet is not purple. Although they're often used interchangeably and look extremely similar to each other to the naked eye, they're different. For one, violet surpasses blue on the visible spectrum and has the shortest wavelength. Furthermore, as Minute Physics explains, what we call violet should actually be considered blue, and what we call blue should be considered cyan. 

4. Carrots used to be purple.

When we think of carrots, we think of the bright orange vegetable that Bugs Bunny eats while asking “what’s up, doc?” Today, carrots are mainly orange, but this wasn’t always the case. The earliest record of carrot cultivation comes from 10th-century Persia. These veggies were purple and white with thin roots.

While there may have been orange carrots then, they were a rare mutation. It's believed that in the 16th century, Dutch growers started developing orange carrots using the mutated strains to produce a sweeter vegetable. While purple carrots still exist today, they aren’t as common as their orange counterparts.

5. There actually are words that rhyme with purple.

Contrary to popular belief, there are words that rhyme with purple. Hirple and curple are the two most common rhymes. Hirple means to hobble or walk with a limp, while curple means buttocks. There’s also slang such as nurple, which comes from purple nurple, or the action of violently twisting a person’s nipple. However, words like circle, herbal, and turtle still technically rhyme with purple. These are called half-rhymes, or imperfect rhymes.