It’s the color I turn when I’m stood up.

Dear WD: What’s the connection between “maroon,” meaning “leave stranded” and “maroon,” the reddish-purple color? Is there any? — Edith Freedle, New York, NY

Brace yourself, Edith. Oddly enough, there is no connection whatever. “Maroon,” the verb meaning to abandon or strand, and “maroon” the color are good examples of “homonyms,” words which are spelled and pronounced the same but which have different meanings and origins. English is rife with homonyms, a source of frustration for students faced with learning our sometimes tricky language. Imagine, for instance, trying to fathom the rationale behind “pool” the game, as opposed to the “pool” of “swimming pool.” There is no logical connection between the two words, which have entirely different origins and just happen to look and sound alike.

Meanwhile, back at our two “maroons,” both words have, shall we say, colorful histories. “Maroon” the color comes from the Italian “marrone,” a large chestnut of Southern Europe, which is, presumably, maroon. (The word “chestnut,” incidentally, has nothing to do with any sort of chest, but comes from the same Latin root that gave us “castanet,” for you flamenco fans out there.)

The other “maroon” comes from the Spanish word “cimarron,” meaning wild or untamed. “Maroons” were originally runaway slaves in the West Indies who, having escaped their bondage, fled into the forests and mountains of the islands to live. The nefarious practice of 17th century pirates and buccaneers abandoning their captives on deserted islands also became known as “marooning.” Somewhat later, Daniel Defoe’s fictional Robinson Crusoe, “marooned” by a shipwreck, became perhaps the most famous case of waiting for Friday to arrive. “Marooned” eventually came to mean simply “lost in the wilds.” Today, we use it as a metaphor for anything from being stranded with car trouble to the outcome of a bad blind date.

5 comments on this post.
  1. julie:

    entry needs to address the bugs bunny usage!

    while it was originally said in jest, the usage has persisted for 40-50 years now, and moron/fool is now the primary meaning of any noun usage.

    quite widespread, at least in the states. only a matter of time before major dictionaries let it in. slang dicts already have.


  2. MarkB:

    When I saw the listing on the main page, I thought of Bugs first.

  3. sleigh:

    Not homonyms in British English. To maroon (maroon) and colour maroon (mar?n).

  4. Akleban:

    In the Bugs Bunny cartoon, he hides the real word ‘Moron’, meaning one of lower functioning intellect, by stretching it to the pun “What a Maroon”. It is possible that it was a reference to bigoted speech for people of color in the USA and could even be connected to a term known back then in the 40s and 50s and before that, ‘octoroon’, meaning one who is one eighth of African descent. It too was considered derogatory. Because people took offense to the word Moron back at the beginning of the 20th century, other words took it place (e.g. ‘stupid’, ‘idiot’, ‘retard’, etc…) each being considered derogatory after a few years of usage and therefore being replaced by a less offensive word. That is, until that new word itself became offensive over time and was replaced. In the world of education/psychology a similar thing happened as ‘Mentally Retarded’ got replaced by ‘Mentally Handicapped’, then by ‘Mentally Disabled’, and now ‘Intellectually Disabled’, all referring to the same type of human differences.

  5. Alex Morrow:

    Strangely, in Queensland, Australia, the colour is virtually always pronounced as “ma-roahn”. The Queensland Rugby League team is the Maroons (pronounced Ma-roahns), schools use “maroahn” as their colours, and so on. I don’t think this is done anywhere else, either in Australia, or in the world. Among the League aficionados, saying “Come on, the Maroons”, pronouncing it as “ma-roon” would be met with blank stares. On the other hand, we have Maroon Dam, Mt Maroon, and so on – pronounced Ma-roon.

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