Q: I’m curious about the history of “red” in various languages. In Russia, Red Square was so named because “red” used to mean beautiful. In Spain, Alhambra means “the red one.” Is it also “the beautiful one”? And did “red” ever mean beautiful in English?
A: When the square near the Kremlin in Moscow was named Krasnaya Ploshchad in the 17th century, the Russian meant “Beautiful Square.”
At that time, the adjective krasny (the feminine is krasnaya) could mean either “red” or “beautiful.” Now it just means the color, except in a few old idiomatic expressions, such as krasnaya devitsa (beautiful girl).
So why did the Russian word for “red” once mean “beautiful”? Probably because the Russian for “beautiful” (krasivy) and the Russian for “red” (krasny) are ultimately derived from the same root in reconstructed prehistoric Proto-Slavic.
Interestingly, the Russian square was often referred to as “Beautiful Square” in English in the 19th century, according to our searches of digital databases.
But in the late 19th century, well before the Russian Revolution in 1917, “Red Square” became the usual name for it in English.
The earliest example we’ve seen of “beautiful square” is from Characteristic Anecdotes From the History of Russia, Bernard Lambert’s 1805 translation of a work in French by Heinrich Friedrich C. Clausen.
The translation lower-cases “beautiful square,” but it clearly refers to the square near the Kremlin in Moscow:
“The ancient Russians had a custom of assembling daily, in the beautiful square, at Moscow, from a certain hour in the morning until dinner time, to meet their friends and acquaintances.”
An asterisk after “beautiful square” refers the reader to a note that says “Krasnaja Plosehad before the Kreml.” (We’ve used an ordinary “s” in place of the long “s” that appears in “square” and several other words in the original text.)
In Travels in European Russia, an anonymous 1826 work, the phrase is capitalized: “One of the most striking objects in it is ‘the Beautiful Square,’ 1260 feet long, and in its greatest breath [sic] 434 feet.”
The earliest example we’ve found for “Red Square” is from an article, entitled “Russia,” in the October 1816 issue of The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany, citing a report in the St. Petersburg Gazette:
“On the 28th August, the Emperor reviewed troops in the Red Square at Moscow.”
However, most of the early examples we’ve seen use “Beautiful Square,” not “Red Square,” though we’ve found a few from the 19th century that include both “red” and “beautiful” in reference to the square.
Here’s an example with both adjectives, from Russian Pictures Drawn With Pen and Pencil (1889), by Thomas Michell:
“We are now in the great Red (or beautiful) Square, where we are at once struck by the eccentric appearance of the Cathedral of St. Basil the Beatified.”
As for Alhambra, the palace in Granada, the name is derived from the Arabic phrase Al Hamra (“the red one”). The reference is probably to the red clay used to make the building, not to its beauty, according to etymologists who’ve studied the issue.
When the adjective “red” showed up in early Old English as read, it referred to “shades of purple, pink, and orange, which are now distinguished by these distinct colour terms,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, adding, “The term is now applied to shades that vary from bright scarlet or crimson to reddish yellow or brown.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Epinal Glossary, a Latin-Old English glossary dating from as far back as the 600s: “Flauum uel fulfum, read.” (The Latin here refers to golden or reddish yellow.)
The next OED citation is from the Corpus Glossary, which is believed to date from the 700s: “Ruber, read.” (The Latin here refers to red and shades of orange.)
The word “red” in its various spellings (read, rad, rade, ræden, reedde, etc.) has usually referred to color. However, the word has had many other senses over the years, such as angry (as in a “red rage”), superior (as in “red blooded”), Communist (as in “red peril”), and so on.
Has it ever, you ask, meant beautiful in English? Not as far as we can tell.
By the way, we’ve written often on our blog about colors, including a post in 2014 about why some colors are more popular than others in surnames, an item in 2015 about the off-color history of green, and a post in 2011 about which came first, the color orange or the orange that’s eaten.