Phnom Penh, Cambodia
From Thailand we cross the border into Cambodia, for the quick story behind the name of a rich orange-yellow colour: gamboge.
To English speakers today, gamboge is probably best known as the name of the saffron-like colour of Buddhist monks’ robes but, according to Herman Melville, it was the colour of London’s smog at the height of the Industrial Revolution:
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Upon sallying out this morning, encountered the old-fashioned pea soup London fog – of a gamboge color. It was lifted, however, from the ground & floated in mid-air. When lower, it is worse.
The colour takes its name from an artist’s pigment and dye, which has been known as gamboge since the seventeenth century. The pigment in turn acquired its name from the gamboge tree, from which it is ultimately manufactured. And the gamboge tree takes its name from the raw product extracted from it – a thick, milky gum known as gamboge resin, or gambogium – which has long been used to make the pigment (and a mild purgative medicine, should you ever need it).
But where did the name gamboge itself come from?
The trees that produce gamboge are all native to southeast Asia, in particular to the nations of Thailand and neighbouring Cambodia. It was from there that gambogium resin was first imported into Europe in the 1600s, and, simply enough, the resin took its name from the Latin name for Cambodia, Gambogia. All in all, it’s one of those etymological connections that seems obvious only once you know to look for it.