History of the word "LILAC" [long]

English LILAC is a common garden ornamental small tree, and a color name derived from its flower. Here's how LILAC's etymology is summarized in eight of today's English dictionaries.
Concise OED @ OxfordDictionaries.com: early 17th century English: from obsolete French, via Spanish and Arabic from Persian līlak, variant of nīlak 'bluish', from nīl 'blue'
Collins English @ Dictionary.com: C17: via French from Spanish, from Arabic līlak, changed from Persian nīlak bluish, from nīl blue
Random House @ Dictionary.com: 1615–25; < Sp < Ar līlak < Pers, assimilated var. of nīlak bluish, equiv. to nīl blue, indigo (< Skt nīla ) + -ak suffix of appurtenance
American Heritage @ YourDictionary.com: Obsolete French, from Arabic līlak, from Middle Persian nīlak, from nīl, indigo, from Sanskrit nīlī, from nīla-, dark blue.
Webster's New World @ YourDictionary.com: Fr (now lilas) < Ar līlak < Pers līlak, nīlak, bluish < nīl, indigo < Sans nila, dark blue, indigo
Merriam-Webster @ M-W.com: from French, from Arabic līlak, from Persian nīlak bluish, from nīl blue, from Sanskrit nīla dark blue. First Known Use in English: 1625
Etymonline @ Dictionary.com: 1625, from Fr. lilac "shrub of genus Syringa with mauve flowers," from Sp. lilac, from Arabic lilak, from Pers. lilak, variant of nilak "bluish," from nil "indigo" (cf. Skt. nilah "dark blue")
Chambers Dictionary @ ChambersHarrap.co.uk: 17c: from Persian ''nilak'' bluish, from ''nil'' blue.
The last one above, Chambers, is incomplete but surely correct: Lilac is assuredly from Persian ''lilak'', a documented variant of the more standard ''nilak'' = "a little blue", "blueish", which is the Persian dimunitive of the Persian ''nil'' = blue or indigo. The thing that's highly questionable is the claimed Arabic (and Spanish) language on the path of descent. The first problem is that I can't find anybody citing an attestation of a ''līlak'' word at a sufficiently early date in Arabic. The second problem lies in the history of the introduction of the Lilac word into Europe. The early European meaning was for the small tree (or bush), and not the color; the color meaning was secondary and tied to the blueish flower on this particular tree.

Here's a quote from the book "Lilacs: the genus Syringa", by John L. Fiala (year 2002) (viewable at books.google.com/books?id=rYatjOH-LbAC)
As a species lilacs are not very old in botanical history. The discovery and introduction of the various species has been largely limited to the past 100 years, with few exceptions. ''Syringa vulgaris'' [a.k.a. the Common Lilac] has been known and cherished for over 500 years. The hybrid ''Syringa x persica'', often called the "Persian Lilac" has been around for 300 years, whereas ''Syringa x chinensis''... has been around for over 200 years.... [Lilacs of all species] are not children of the very warm climates nor of the tropical sun. They are natives, mountain dwellers, of the colder regions requiring a length of cold weather to set their fat buds for bloom. Recent experiments have shown that they will grow in some of the southerly regions where frost and drought are minimal. They are best where winters are cold but not artic.... Lilacs became perfect settlers in the new home of North America. Once planted they could fend for themselves and readily withstand the severe cold. By 1652 lilacs were commonly grown all over the North American colonies.

It was not until 1828 that the actual home of the Lilac, S. vulgaris, was positively identified. Anton Rochel, writing of the rare plants in Banat in western Romania, noted lilacs growing among limestone rocks in the Alibek Mountains. Heuffel corroborated these findings in 1831 and extended the lilac's native habitat to include [several other places in the Balkans].... It was from Istanbul that the Flemish scholar and traveler Ogier Ghiselen... brought back to Vienna in his baggage in 1563 gifts from the Sultan's gardens. Among them was a plant called the ''lilac''. Planted in Ogier Ghiselen's garden in Vienna, the Lilak or Turkischer Holler as the Austrians called it, attracted much attention. There the lilac bloomed for the first time in western Europe. Ogier Ghiselen moved to Paris in 1570 and remained in France until his death in 1592. He brought a shoot of lilac with him to Paris. The lilac began to fill the gardens of Paris.... Besides the wild blue-flowered lilac, two color variants sprang up early on in European gardens; a white-flowered form and a purple-flowered form. Literature does not provide a record of their origins, only the gardens in which they grew.... The deep purple lilac was first grown by James Sutherland in the Edinburgh medicinal gardens in 1683 and was therefore called the Scotch Lilac.
In similar vein, here's from Wikipedia talking about the Common Lilac (''Syringa vulgaris''):
Lilacs were introduced into European gardens at the end of the sixteenth century, from Ottoman gardens. The botanic homeland of ''Syringa vulgaris'' was identified in 1828, when naturalist Anton Rocher found truly wild specimens in the Balkins. [History note: The Balkans was part of the Ottoman empire for many centuries including the sixteenth]. The [Habsburg] Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador [in Istanbul], Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq [who was Flemish], is generally credited with supplying lilac slips to the botanist Carolus Clusius [who was Flemish/French], about year 1562. [By the way Carolus Clusius according to his Wikipedia article is "perhaps the most influential of all 16th century scientific horticulturists"].... Lilac's first appearance by name in English print the OED dated to 1625.... Today it [Common Lilac] is widely naturalised in western and northern Europe [but not in Arabic-speaking lands].
In modern Turkish the word is spelled ''leylak'' and means Lilac tree and Lilac color. The venerable etymology dictionary by Walter Skeat (1888) (downloadable archive.org/details/etymologicaldict00skeauoft) derives the English from the Turkish, the spelling of which Skeat has as ''leilaq''. Skeat says the Turkish is from Persian, and he cites the 19th century Richardson's Persian-Arabic-English Dictionary (downloadable archive.org/details/dictionarypersia00johnuoft), wherein are the Persian words ''līlaj'' = ''līlang'' = indigo or blue; and ''nīlak'' = blueish. Richardson's contains no Arabic word along the lines of ''Lilac''. The closest to Lilac of any word in Arabic in Richardson's is "nīlaj" = indigo, and also Arabic ''nīlīy'', which is translated as "blue, [or] livid [color], [or] blackish" (and neither of those words are capable of generating ''lilak" in Arabic).

Older English spellings for lilac included "laylock", "lilack" and "lilock". The English etymology dictionary by Ernest Weekly (1921) (downloadable archive.org/details/etymologicaldict00weekuoft/) states that Lilac's path of descent is "Old French (now only in plural ''lilas''), Spanish, Arabic ''lilak'', Persian ''lilak'',... [et cetera].... Earlier ''laylock'' is via Turkish ''leilaq''." There, Weekly's statement is that the deceased English wordform ''laylock'' came via one path while the surviving wordform ''lilac'' came via another path. That makes no sense of the evidence. There are no attestations of the Persian word meaning the bush: Only the color word was in Persian. The language that changed the primary meaning from the color to the bush must be on every path of descent. Which language was that? Arabic provides no hard info to answer that question because the word is not attested in Arabic either as a color or as a bush (except at a date too late). But since the bush generally couldn't flower in the climate of the Arabic speaking lands, it's highly unlikely that it was Arabic that changed the meaning to the bush.

Spanish couldn't've borrowed an oral dialectical Arabic word for the Persian color word because the date, early 17th century, is way too late for Spanish borrowings from Arabic. Today's official dictionary of the Spanish language, the DRAE (online at buscon.rae.es/draeI/), says the Spanish is from French. It also says the French is from Arabic ("del fr. lilac, este del ár. līlak, este del persa lila[n]ǧ o lilang...."). The official dictionary of the French language says too that the French is not from Spanish (online at cnrtl.fr/definition/lilas). It says the first attestion in French is year 1605 spelled ''lilac'' and meaning the lilac bush. The color sense is not recorded in French until 1757 and was an extension of the botanical meaning. What was the origin of the 1605 French? The official dictionary of the French language often has detailed word etymologies, but in this case it has a terribly short answer with no supporting citations and no supporting facts: "Empr. à l'ar. līlāk" = "borrowed from Arabic līlāk". No explanation for how French was borrowing a word for an ornamental flower tree that does not flower in Arabic-speaking lands. A word with no attestations in Arabic writings!

Question: What hard facts are today's dictionaries going on when they unanimously say the word is from Arabic (except for Chambers Dictionary which merely ducks the question)?
  • #2
    Modern Arabic dictionaries have the Arabic word ''al-līlak'' meaning the lilac flower, but NOT the lilac color. My English-Arabic dictionary translates the lilac color as لون أرجواني فاتح ''lawn arjawani fatah'' which translates back as "light purple color" or "light fuchsia color". Since lilac trees do not thrive in Arabic-speaking lands for the reason mentioned above, and so are not well-known to Arabs, the name ''līlak'' would be too arcane to get circulation as a color name in Arabic. The botanical name ''al-līlak'' is absent from Arabic dictionaries and Arabic botanical writers before the 19th century to the best of my knowledge. Therefore I consider it very highly probable that the botanical name was imported to Arabic from Europe or Turkish.

    My English-Turkish dictionary -- and also wordreference.com/entr/lilac -- says English lilac is Turkish "leylak" and is also "leylak rengi" where "rengi" is Turkish for "color". I don't know how for how long the Turkish is attested in Turkish. I know that to get a color name established in a language to the point where it's in the dictionaries requires lots of supporting practical context in the society.

    Asking translate.google.com for the Persian word for Lilac returns two results which I can't interpret except for the fact that they have no relationship whatsoever to the old Persian ''lilak/nilak''.

    The old Persian ''lilak/nilak'' color-word was a pale purple-ish blue hue -- "blue, as the fingers with cold", says Richardson's 1852 Dictionary. That had natural linguistic support in Persian because it's a dimunitive of a common general Persian word for blue, ''nil''; the diminutive means "blueish". It doesn't have such support in Arabic because the Pesian diminutive suffix "ak" is not recognizable as any such thing in Arabic. "Nil" is not in common or general use for blue in Arabic. Arabic does use "nil" for indigo dye and for the Nile river, but the word we're talking about is Lilak not Nilak, and Arabic would never connect a "nil..." with a "lil...". For Arabic to adopt the foreign Persian color word "lilak" it would need a practical application, a commonly seen visually defining reference, and I'm not aware of any. The same goes for Turkish before the plant got introduced.

    In summary, I can't find any hard facts supporting an Arabic word ancestor for Lilac online. On the basis of what info I've seen, I believe the word's history is: Sanskrit nila="indigo" --> Persian nīl="indigo or any blue" --> Persian nīlak="light purple-ish blueish" --> Persian līlak="nilak color" --> Turkish leilak="nilak color" (probably very little circulated in Turkish) --> Turkish leilak="a certain small tree with flowers of nilak color" --> [not Spanish and probably no other language] --> French lilac --> English lilac.

    Question: What hard facts are today's English dictionaries going on? My motive for this long post is eventually not the etymology of lilac as such, but rather the general standards of evidence of etymology used by today's dictionaries.

    In a French-Arabic dictionary by Ellious Bocthor dated 1828 (downloadable archive.org/details/dictionnairefra00percgoog), the French word for lilac tree was translated as Arabic ليلك ''līlak'' and synonymously as لعلى ''la'ala''. Bocthor is more than 200 years too late to constitute an Arabic precedent for the French lilac word. Another potential problem with Bocthor is his synonym لعلى ''la'ala''. Richardson's Persian-Arabic-English dictionary year 1852 says that in Arabic there's a word لعلع ''la'al'a'' that among other things is a "name of an Arabian tree". No further information, but the turn of phrase "an Arabian tree" implies the tree thrives in the Arabian penninsula. Which implies it couldn't be the lilac tree. So it's possible Bocthor might have a mistake (or might not). As mentioned earlier, the much fuller Richardson's has no Arabic ''līlak''.

    In the later 19th century, a very influential expert about the Spanish words of Arabic origin was Reinhart Dozy (1820 – 1883). Dozy cites Bocthor's dictionary as a piece of evidence supporting an Arabic ancestry for "Lilac", in Dozy's sometimes genuinely evidence-based book "Glossaire des mots espagnols et portugais dérivés de l'arabe" (archive.org/details/glossairedesmot00englgoog). The only other item that Dozy cites to support the supposed Arabic origin for the Spanish "Lilac" is an entry in "Dictionnaire français-arabe des dialectes vulgaires d'Algérie, d'Egypte, de Tunis et de Maroc" by Jean Joseph Marcel, year 1869 (archive.org/details/dictionnairefra00marcgoog). That's more that 250 years too late to serve as an Arabic precedent. (By the way, the full entry in Marcel's dictionary is: "LILAS, ليلاك ''līlāk'' (d'où vient le nom français)" -- that is, Marcel claims gratuitously that the French name is of North African Arabic descent.)

    The fact that Dozy couldn't do any better than cite 19th century dictionaries by Bocthor and Marcel to support an Arabic Lilac is indicative of a serious paucity of evidence. It's in contrast with Dozy's treatment of - for example - the origin of Spanish ''mascara'', where Dozy delivers a full page of hard evidence from old old authors to get it established that Arabic ''maskhara'' is old old in Arabic.


    Senior Member
    catalan and spanish
    in Spanish there are two words derived from Sanscrit Nila.It seems there are two different species

    I copy and paste a part of the definitions in the DRAE


    (Del ár. hisp. anníl o annír, este del ár. clás. níl[aǧ], este del persa nil, y este del sánscr. nīla).

    1. m. Arbusto perenne de la familia de las Papilionáceas, de tallo derecho, hojas compuestas, flores rojizas en espiga o racimo, y fruto en vaina arqueada, con granillos lustrosos, muy duros, parduscos o verdosos y a veces grises.


    (Del fr. lilac, este del ár. līlak, este del persa lila[n]ǧ o lilang, y este del sánscr. nîla, azul oscuro).

    1. f. Arbusto de la familia de las Oleáceas, de tres a cuatro metros de altura, muy ramoso, con hojas pecioladas, enteras, acorazonadas, puntiagudas, blandas y nerviosas, flores de color morado claro, salvo en la variedad que las tiene blancas, olorosas, pequeñas, de corola tubular partida en cuatro lóbulos iguales y en grandes ramilletes erguidos y cónicos, y fruto capsular, comprimido, negro, coriáceo, con dos semillas. Es planta originaria de Persia y muy cultivada en los jardines por la belleza de sus flores.


    Senior Member
    English - England
    I do not think I have ever read such a long post about the etymology of a word! It was certainly interesting and on the face of it your contention that "lilac" cannot have come via Arabic/Spanish would seem to be supported. On the other hand one would hope that the dictionaries which give that etymology have a good reason for doing so. It would be interesting to know if they all used the same source - the fact that the etymologies do not match exactly suggests not. A bit of a mystery, I think.


    Senior Member
    May I add some thoughts of mine to this thread?
    I searched the online Cologne sanskrit dictionary http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/scans/MWScan/tamil/index.html
    and found the word ANILA meaning dark, black or blue. This is the origin of Aniline, the first synthetic dye. Sanskrit NILA also means dark colour, blue, green or black. If we apply the L-R phenomenon on NILA, it becomes NIRA, which is close to the latin for black. It is also close to the Greek NEREUS who was the older god of sea, before the introduction of Neptune. NEREIDS where his daughters, godesses of waters. The relation between sea and dark blue is obvious. Note also that the modern Gr. word for water is NERO (in many places pronounced NIRO, plural NIRA), probably related to the waters god NEREUS. Also, in modern Gr. NERAIDES are spirits or fairies of waters.

    I suppose there is an Indo-european relation between nila, nero, water and blue. What you think?


    Senior Member
    catalan and spanish
    If we apply the L-R phenomenon on NILA, it becomes NIRA, which is close to the latin for black.
    I do not think that one latin word for back niger nigra nigrum derives from the same root as sanscrit nila.In the latin root nigr there is a G and this word is related to greek nekros, Ex.“dies niger” the day of death,
    The name of the (in)famous emperor Nero not either
    Nĕro , ōnis, m. a Sabine word, = fortis; cf. Nerio = fortitudo; root nar; Sanscr. naras, man; Gr. ἀνήρ; cf. ἠνορέη,
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    Btw, the indigo in Gr. is loulaki.
    I just looked up "indigo" in Albanian, and the answer is llullaq. It's a color as well as a dye in Albanian. Since the lilac tree originates in the Balkans to the best of everyone's knowledge, it's conceivable the Turkish leilaq word comes from a Balkans word for blue related to the Albanian llullaq and the Greek loulaki. And maybe even that word was in Turkish itself back in the 16th century.

    The ancestry of words involves guesswork and uncertainty more often than not. I say one shouldn't trust ANY of the dictionaries to be reporting verified truths in their etymologies. The etymologies of some words are well verified and truly reliable, but you and I generally don't know which words those are without digging deep into facts in the individual cases. The general attitude in the etymology summaries in the dictionaries is too credulous and uncritical, too often, to be worthy of trust.


    Senior Member
    I don't think that the loulak(i) tree is indigenous of Balkans. Encyclopedic information say that grows in India. Now this material is obsolete but I can remember my grandma using loulaki when I was little. Obviously the merchants who imported this dye from India used the indigenous name like in many other commodities (tea, coffee, curry, etc).
    I agree that etymologies in english sources can be rubbish in some cases, and they are augmented by copy&paste on wikis. Ignorant administrators tend to preserve and perpetuate conventional etymologies by erasing any novel idea. Forums like this can be more progressive.