ultramarine

What does this word look like? I think it sort of looks like a long boat, maybe a ferry or a cruise ship, or some other long vessel curved at the front and back bottom corners and with a large superstructure near the back and a smaller one (perhaps just a sphere or dish) near the front. But it has a fair few vertical lines in it, and some amount of symmetry – aside from the ascenders at one end and dot at the other, there’s the ramar in the middle. In saying it, too, you have /m/ on the lips in the middle and liquids (plus one stop) on the tongue tip on either side of it.

How would it look if someone made it a deep blue, do you suppose? What if Yves Klein came along and claimed it as his artwork by painting it with International Klein Blue: ultramarine (computer screens don’t really quite get that colour). Would that make it more valuable, more expensive, more illuminating?

Never mind the shape and sound, though: you’re going to notice the parts in it pretty quickly. It’s obviously ultra and marine. OK, so what do you know about those two parts?

Your average person will see ultra and will think ‘extremely’: ultra-violent, ultra-orthodox, that super-high-test gasoline labelled Ultra on the pump that you never buy, and so on. Actually, ultra is Latin for ‘beyond’. The colour ultraviolet is so named because it is beyond the violet on the spectrum, not because it’s extremely violet. (How could it be? You can’t even see it, generally – it’s beyond the range of your eyes.)

As to marine, it has two main things that it brings to mind: boats and the Marine Corps. You don’t necessarily associate the Marines with the sea, but that’s where their name comes from. Marine is from an adjectival form of Latin mare ‘sea, ocean’. So marine life, marina, marination (because the sea is briny and so is what you’re marinating that steak in), and so on.

What is ultramarine? The odds are pretty good that you already know. Actually, the odds are not bad that you know more than one thing it refers to. If you play Warhammer 40,000 you may know the Ultramarines as superhuman warriors (a movie was even made about them, as in a real movie in our world). If you’re a marine engineer, you may know Ultramarine as the makers of MOSES, a marine environment simulation software for modelling stresses when designing such things as drilling platforms. If you’re a marine (as opposed to freshwater) fish hobbyist, you may know UltraMarine as a magazine. If you’re into ambient house music, you may know the musical group Ultramarine (here’s a YouTube link to their piece “Stella”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0us_pzLvZk). If you like the books of Malcolm Lowry, you will recognize Ultramarine as his first novel, published in 1933. If you buy gas in some parts of Canada, you might think of Ultramar, a gas company that is named after its former parent company, originally a South African mining company formed to explore Venezuelan opportunities.

But if you’re practically anyone, you’ve very likely seen the word ultramarine as the name of a colour. A deep blue colour. Deep like the blue of lapis lazuli, like International Klein Blue. OK, yes, if you’re not a modern art lover you may not know IKB; it’s a deep blue that the artist Yves Klein used as his signature colour, painting all sorts of things with it and thus claiming them as his artworks. As it happens, IKB relies heavily on ultramarine. And ultramarine, originally, was made from lapis lazuli.

Ultramarine was a – not popular, because it was extremely expensive – highly valued pigment in art for a long time. Johannes Vermeer used it in his famous Girl with a Pearl Earring. Medieval illuminated manuscripts and paintings would use it for the robe of the virgin and others, partly because it was so lovely and partly because it was so expensive. It was so expensive because it was very difficult to make and its primary ingredient, lapis lazuli, was expensive and hard to procure. It came from Asia, you see, on the far side of the Mediterranean and even Black and Caspian seas.

Which is why it is called ultramarine. Not because it is an incredibly deep version of the colour of the sea. Just because it came from beyond the sea. Its sources could actually be accessed by land; it just happens that that was not the normal trade route, and for very good reason: mountains are much more treacherous and slow going than waves. So it came from beyond the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, an area itself known during the Crusades as Outremer, a French version of ultra maris, for the same reason – it was on the far side of what in those days was their deep blue yonder.

4 responses to “ultramarine

  1. Interesting. I’d never really thought hard about it and had assumed that marine was simply a reference to the deep blue color.

  2. One of my favourite words.

  3. There is a good article on ultramarine in The Paris Review: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/06/08/true-blue/

  4. Pingback: nightfall | Sesquiotica

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