Where does the word “coral” come from?

Written By Carla Elliff

I have always liked to learn about the origin of words and their meaning, it helps me remember things and make connections. Language is a powerful tool and is deeply linked to a sense of belonging. In fact, it can shape the way we think

With the whole context of ocean literacy gaining momentum, I have caught myself thinking more about the etymology of the words I work with on a daily basis. Ocean, science, marine, beach, ecosystem… each comes from somewhere geographically, and along our timeline. While “ocean” dates back to about the year 1300, “ecosystem” was only coined in 1935. This tells us a lot about how people viewed and understood the world – and this is just considering Modern English! 

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A beautiful representation of how language groups are connected by Minna Sundberg.

So, what about our adored corals?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, coral is the “general name for the hard, calcareous skeleton excreted by certain marine polyps, c. 1300, from Old French coral (12c., Modern French corail), from Latin corallium, from Greek korallion”. This is a modern history of the word and applies directly to our use of coral in marine sciences. But going further back, the dictionary points that the word is “perhaps of Semitic origin (compare Hebrew goral “small pebble”, Arabic garal “small stone”).

This is where it starts to get interesting… First, it seems that the old misconception that corals are rocks instead of living organisms is pretty old indeed! Second, if the origin is Semitic, that means it began to be used over the area of West Asia, North Africa, Northeast Africa and Malta. On that note, the description also states: “Originally especially the red variety found in the Mediterranean, used ornamentally, hence “red, the (red) color of coral” (mid-15c.).” 

So, the first corals to be called “small pebbles” or “small stones” were the red corals (genus Corallium) of the Mediterranean. Unlike other corals, Corallium species remain red after death because of carotenoid pigments deposited in their skeleton. Or maybe it is because of the blood that ran from Medusa’s head into the river after Perseus decapitated this monstrous Gorgon (yes, as in Gorgonia, a genus of soft corals!), which turned seaweed into red coral… In any case, for this unique trait, red coral is also called precious coral, since its hue made the material very attractive to produce jewelry and amulets. 

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The gorgon Medusa (painted by Caravaggio) and a Gorgonia soft coral (photograph by prilfish

This wide use of red coral for ornamental purposes also led to the name of a variety of shades of orange-red color. Which is why it now makes perfect sense to me that “The coral-snake (1760) is so called for the red zones in its markings”, as further described in the Online Etymology Dictionary. 

This ancient color is still very present in modern day life. So much so that Living Coral was named the PANTONE Color of the Year 2019. Their explanation and interpretation of what this color symbolizes in society is amazing! I was tempted to copy the whole description here, but I’ve restrained myself to only this phrase “Lying at the center of our naturally vivid and chromatic ecosystem, PANTONE Living Coral is evocative of how coral reefs provide shelter to a diverse kaleidoscope of color”. I love the idea that so many people are connected to the ocean (even if unaware) because of this color.

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The PANTONE Color of the Year 2019: Living Coral, a huge deal for the design industry!

Following the list of other things that are called coral but are not our cnidarian friends are also the eggs of lobsters. This name is applied mostly when talking about lobster roe as a delicacy, given its color.

And if you want to stretch this even further, Coral is also a first name in many English and Spanish-speaking countries. According to Wikipedia, it was the 943rd most popular name in the USA from 1900–1909, the 977th in 1991, and 988th in 1992. The French “version” is in fact the name of the protagonist of one of my favorite books: Coraline, by Neil Gaiman (and if you read the book or seen the movie, you’ll remember her name is actually a source of frustration to the character – “It’s Coraline, not Caroline!”).

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A memorable quote from Coraline by Neil Gaiman.

From marine polyp to Greek mythology, to PANTONE color of the year, to modern literature… corals are engrained in our culture in ways we don’t even imagine. I wonder now about where the word reef comes from… but that’ll have to wait until next time.

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