How did the Yellow, Red and Black Seas get their names? And what is the fourth sea named after a color?

The Yellow Sea, situated between China and the Korean Peninsula, has been in the news lately due to the tensions between North and South Korea. Several major Chinese rivers that contain golden-hued silt empty into the sea. This silt alters the color of the water.

(What are North and South Korea’s real names? Read about that here.)

Like the Yellow Sea, the Red Sea may also be named after a natural process. Seasonal blooms of a bacteria commonly called “sea sawdust” turn the water red. These bacteria, Trichodesmium erythraeum, help process nutrients in the ocean that certain small marine creatures depend upon. But there are other thoughts regarding how the Red Sea, which is an inlet of the Indian Ocean, got its name. Among them is the idea that it borders the “red land,” the name ancient Egyptians used to refer to the Egyptian Desert.

Another theory states that the color red signifies “south.” Some Asiatic languages use colors to refer to directions. The same theory applies to the Black Sea; the color “black” may refer to the direction “north” in Medieval Turkish, or the dark, sudden storms that would strike and cloud over the skies..

(Is there any association between Turkey, the nation, and turkey, the bird? Learn about that here.)

The fourth, and final, sea named after a color is not the Chartreuse or Mauve Sea, though the world might be a more interesting place if either of those existed. In fact, the White Sea is located on the northwest coast of Russia. You can probably guess the reason for its name: ice and pale light.

Would you like to know the meaning behind any other particular place names? Let us know, below.


  1. GODFRED -  October 19, 2016 - 11:35 am

    Interesting information, came across the info when researching with my kids why red sea is called that. Your article was very insightful thanks.

  2. Abhishek sarkar -  October 5, 2015 - 7:29 am

    i live in india….. i want to know from u exact answer that why red sea look red in colour.???????????

    • aquarius -  December 6, 2015 - 12:15 pm

      Greenland sea?

    • Hers -  February 22, 2016 - 6:56 pm

      it got its name from a bunch of algae that reside in the sea before they die off they look reddish.

    • Akash Tyagi -  October 23, 2016 - 7:24 pm

      for following reasons:
      Red sea contains red green algae and zooplankton due to the changes in water temperature,these micro-organisms can’t sustain , they start dying and discolour the water to red brown , moreover red sea have underwater volcanic eruptions which gives rise to hydrothermal plume which gives the red brown muddy appearance to the sea.

  3. Johny -  June 26, 2015 - 9:58 am

    In Africa its believed whites come from the sea. Red sea is where red heads come from, black sea where Italians and black haired whites, yellow sea for blonds.

  4. nazeer -  April 19, 2014 - 3:23 am

    Informative & interesting .keep helping

  5. nazeer -  April 19, 2014 - 3:21 am

    A good information on the names.keep helping

  6. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  November 25, 2013 - 1:11 am

    The Israelites called the Red Sea the “Sea of Reeds.” That probably came from reeds in the Red Sea. Maybe a typo somewhere started the modern name “Red Sea.”

  7. Esabella -  October 17, 2013 - 9:33 am

    nice fact ………… i really like it :)

    • Natalie -  November 13, 2015 - 12:13 pm

      It does not say much about the Black Sea

  8. P_ENGEL -  September 4, 2013 - 10:41 pm

    On the Red Sea: it is indeed named “Yam SoPh” (Samekh-Pe letters) in Hebrew in Exodus, which translates in English as Sea [of the] Reed. It corresponds to the passage by the Hebrew People from the South to the North, following as such the path represented by the “reed” in Egypt (it is then the “lotus”)), in Mesopotamia (the Reeds of Enki corresponding to a funeral ritual of cremation in the middle of the marshes), or in Asia (lotus again, on which Buddha or Vishnu are sitting). The “reed-lotus” corresponds to the passage from the world of materiality to the world of spirituality and of “being alive”, because reeds, as lotus, take their roots in the waters and bloom in the air: they connect the world of the “hidden” life matrix (the sea) to the “enlighten” (spiritually) alive. So it is very possible that this “Red Sea” name could come from a play on words between Reed and Red, with one “e” letter dropping from reed.

    The Black Sea is indeed associated to the “north” with black (actually “darkness”) being linked to the north, the night, and not only in medieval Turkish, but also in ancient Egyptian, in Sumerian and the whole Phoenician world. The Black Sea was named “Ister” by the Greeks, which refers to the “uterus” (the feminine matrix from where a new life sprouts) – and the idea is a light is seen from darkness: thus the idea of “getting reborn” in the dark northern lands (Jesus “life” is born on the winter solstice: the light comes from the darkness).

    • M A T -  August 11, 2016 - 3:54 am

      Very nice and thoroughly explained.

  9. Emma -  June 10, 2013 - 10:47 pm

    Wow fascinating
    I would like to know more about the Black Sea.

  10. Sanja -  May 25, 2013 - 10:40 am

    Dakota, you reversed it. Actually, white contains all colours and black contains no colours at all. (White = all colours reflected; black = all colours absorbed.)

  11. Gurpreet Singh -  March 19, 2013 - 4:22 am

    There are actually several possibilities as to why the Black Sea earned its name.

    1. The Black Sea was given that name because the lack of oxygen in the water prevents the development of microorganisms, making it appear black.

    2. It was called the Black sea because it was a Sea of Death. Sailors of long ago, if caught in a storm, usually died because of the absence of islands at which to harbour, and the ferocity of the storms that hit.

    3. The intense fogs which develop over the Black sea absorb the light, making the water appear black.

    4. At a certain depth its waters become toxic and poisonous.

    5. The Black Sea got its name from the Ottoman Turks. ‘Kara (Black)’ denotes ‘North’ in Medieval Turkish, as in Kara Denizi- Kara Sea north of Siberian Yakut Turks, similar to Black Sea.

    6. It may be because of ancient colors of cardinal directions. Black is North, red is South, and yellow is East.

  12. Shadow Rider -  April 30, 2012 - 4:30 pm

    Very interesting! :)

  13. H. Bourne -  March 17, 2012 - 9:41 am

    Just where the Red Sea actually was is more complicated than the article leads us to assume.
    There is the Sanskrit Lohit Sagar that seems to translate as the Red Sea but
    may mean the whole of the Indian Ocean or just the western part of it. If the latter, this would agree with the title of the 1950 Before Present (= B.P.) text called the Maris Periplus Erythraei (= Voyage on the Erythraean Sea or PME with the Erythrean part of the title being one of the several Greek words for colours approaching red (witness one of the suggested meanings of words relating to the Phoenicians). It is also likely that Erythrean in this sense indicates that the Erythrean Sea is again the western Indian Ocean. The title of the PME is a Latinisation of the original Greek title with a further Latinisation in the modern state-name of Eritrea.
    For Herodotus( ca. 2450 B. P.), the Red Sea appears to have been what today is called the Persian Gulf for us in the west but the Arabian Gulf in the Arabic world (not to be confused with the Arabian Sea).
    It does appear that the the Yam Suff of the Old Testament translates as the Sea of Reeds and it is this the Exodus story refers to when describing Moses crossing the Red Sea(??).
    It should be observed just how uncertain so much of the above actually is and to pretend otherwise is foolish.

  14. Tomchem -  February 28, 2012 - 3:09 pm

    It would be nice if there are links to the location of the rivers or any places mentioned in these article – links to Google maps maybe?

  15. Dov Michaeli -  February 26, 2012 - 3:47 pm

    Another plausible origin of the Red Sea, is a mistranslation of the Hebrew bible. In Hebrew it is called Yam Soof, which translates to Sea of Reeds. It is easy to see how a dropped “e” ended up as Red.

  16. Mbrew -  February 26, 2012 - 1:01 am

    From information I have been taught: the Dead Sea receives its name due to the lack of life caused by the salt content and that rivers flow into the sea but nothing flows out, which causes pooling of rotting vegetation, decomposing animals, etc. No out-flow is the cause of excess salt content which reflects again, no creatures except bacteria. Also these reasons cause the sea to have extremely foul odors.
    I personnally cannot comment regarding that theory because I live in land-locked Oklahoma and have never been to the Dead Sea.

  17. Andrew -  February 25, 2012 - 7:40 am

    Nice one

  18. Ole TBoy -  February 25, 2012 - 5:46 am

    I was born and raised in Petal, Mississippi. Petal, as in the “petal of a rose.” As far as I know it is the only place in the whole world so named.

  19. Giwa Nzukun -  February 25, 2012 - 1:51 am

    What a wonderful piece of information!nice work.

  20. kathey -  February 24, 2012 - 7:54 pm

    Very informative, well written and interesting! Please ignore the naysayers, who apparently want someone to recognize their vast knowledge – or lack of same. Keep up the good work – to be enjoyed by those of us with less knowledge.

  21. Lynn -  February 10, 2012 - 8:43 pm

    @Sasha – getting your facts straight is good advice… I can find no mention of pirates anywhere when doing my own research for the origin of the name “Black Sea”. There are many other theories, among the oldest being that it was named that way because storms made it dark and menacing and it’s shores were inhabited by savages.

  22. Flintstone -  January 26, 2011 - 9:50 am

    I live in El Morche, Malaga (Spain).
    Love to know how it got it’s name.
    My husband calls it Mortuary Park
    It is fairly quiet!

  23. Sasha -  January 25, 2011 - 4:50 am

    Um, the Black Sea was named for all the pirates that roamed it years ago. Please get your facts straight before you announce something to the world.

  24. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  January 18, 2011 - 10:15 pm

    The archaic-to-ancient Egyptians called the Mediterranean sea, “The Great Green [sea].” (So, there’s your ‘chartreuse’ sea….)

    The Red Sea in the Biblical story is, in Hebrew, the “Sup” sea, which is more-exactly the hairy end (the reedy end) of the Red Sea…. However, Dr. Colin J. Humphreys (Miracles of Exodus) observed at low tide that the Gulf of Aqaba end of the Red Sea turned brilliant red due to corral, (But this is probably common among seas).

  25. Dakota -  January 18, 2011 - 8:59 am

    @Basil. It’s every color absorbed actually, and black is every color reflected. In white, you see nothing, and black, you see all. I actually may have them reversed, but either way, neither white or black are shades. Thank you hot word for this interesting article.

  26. Avi Goldstein -  January 18, 2011 - 6:47 am

    What about the theory that “Red Sea” is a corruption of “Reed Sea”? In Exodus, the Bible refers to “Yam Suf,” literally the Sea of Reeds.

  27. Linda, VP Puzzles -  January 17, 2011 - 8:25 pm

    It seems common for bodies of water to be colored by either some sort of bacteria or mineral. It might not qualify for the list here, but one of my favorites is the Great Blue Hole near Belize. I think its color just comes from the ocean itself. Is that right, or is there some special manner in which its color is derived?

  28. Coribon -  January 17, 2011 - 7:03 pm

    Are these comments prejudice (the ones that are said in detail)? Or did you people have a liable source?

  29. ... -  January 17, 2011 - 4:34 pm

    Hey what about the dead sea?

  30. cokedog -  January 17, 2011 - 4:18 pm

    wow. good stufff

  31. Perambul8 -  January 17, 2011 - 4:10 pm

    In response to Turelnoc1′s comment, Turkey was certainly NOT named after Ataturk. Ataturk was born Mustafa Kemal; he adopted the surname of Ataturk, meaning ‘father of the Turks’ at about the same time as he founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Both Ataturk’s adopted name and the name of the Republic reflect the ethnic group of Turkic people.

  32. cutiepup12 -  January 17, 2011 - 4:07 pm

    That’s real good!Bravo!Brava!

  33. Eyewitness -  January 17, 2011 - 3:39 pm

    Of course you will get an avalanche of responses, but I might as well add my own: On the Word FAQ’s for the day, (What words are most often mispronounced?), the word “pernickity” has an “s” in it and is generally pronounced “persnickity.”

  34. katrina -  January 17, 2011 - 3:08 pm

    wow luv it !!

  35. POGO -  January 17, 2011 - 8:08 am

    Thanks for the information. Does anyone know the title of the program quite a number of years ago, describing the formation of Straits of Gibralter and the impact on the Mediteranean Sea? National Geographic or Nova? Thanks

  36. WALNUT -  January 16, 2011 - 10:57 am


  37. YELLOW SEA | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  January 16, 2011 - 7:49 am

    [...] the blind man after falling into the White Sea. — With Coral not necessarily a choice and Yellow having it’s very own River Dance voice. — Proof is offered by TV sources that Moses [...]

  38. whitword -  January 16, 2011 - 5:02 am

    The four colours/shades of the seas mentioned in the article struck me as interesting (red, yellow, black, white). In a Religions class I took at college, my professor told us a creation story involving those four colors. It may have been from the Upanishads, but i’m not really sure so don’t quote me on that. Anyways the myth said that those were the 4 originals, and all other colours “sprang forth” simply as intermediates or combinations or mixtures. They represented the four directions- North South East West.

  39. Kremina -  January 16, 2011 - 3:22 am

    The Black Sea is the sea resort coast of my country: Bulgaria. The Black Sea is inter-continental sea, located between the coasts of Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine. it is very warm sea and is visited during the whole summer (May-October) by tourists from all over the world. very good beaches, many restaurants, hotels, yachts… not to be missed. I have heard before that its name comes from the fact that big storms appeared and took the lives of many sailors, so in some way it is a symbol of the death (in our lands the black is the colour of death) of the sailors.

  40. Cammie -  January 15, 2011 - 7:30 pm

    “Yam ha Maved” is the Hebrew name for “Dead Sea” which is translated to “killer sea”. The surface is 1,300 feet below sea level and the bottom is 2,300 feet below sea level. There is no life besides bacteria because of the salt content.

    This answers two questions above; however, it doesn’t pertain to the original question. Interesting conversation though!

  41. Cyberquill -  January 15, 2011 - 6:07 pm

    So how did the blue ocean get its name?

  42. Sandy -  January 15, 2011 - 5:44 pm

    I think you’ll find that Mediterranean simply means “middle of the earth” since it was the middle of the known world at the time it was named. I don’t think there is any connection to the colour white.

  43. Basil -  January 15, 2011 - 5:24 pm

    White is not a color, it’s a shade

  44. Maya -  January 15, 2011 - 2:25 pm

    I’ve heard a different reason for the Red Sea’s name – in the Greek myth about Perseus, our hero saves Andromeda when she is tied to a cliff by her father. When Perseus killed the sea monster that she was being sacrificed to, its blood tainted the water. Hence, the Red Sea.

  45. Sharon -  January 15, 2011 - 1:19 pm

    The author did a great job, however, with all the other explanations and names added, I forgt entirely the orignial names of each sea! Can we keep it informative but simple! lol

  46. sonia -  January 15, 2011 - 1:03 pm

    Love…..”hot word” very enjoyable
    thank you

  47. Carrie -  January 15, 2011 - 12:36 pm

    To add to your comment about the Black Sea. The Turkish word from the Mediterranean translates to “White Sea.” However, the Turkish word for the Black Sea translates to its present English name. This could be the reason for the Black Sea’s name–a translation of the Turkish.

  48. Xiang -  January 15, 2011 - 12:30 pm

    The North and South Koreans call it the Western Sea.

  49. Roxanne K. -  January 15, 2011 - 11:43 am

    In answer to Turelnoc’s question,chartreuse is a light green with yellowish tints. That and the “Mauve Sea” don’t exist – the author was being facetious. Also in regard to Misanthrope’s comment, I suspect that the Coral Sea would have been included had it been truly named for its color as coral is a recognized hue. Perhaps the fact that it was named for its contents rather than for any coloration of the sea itself kept it excluded from this list. I’d nver heard the Sea od Cortez called the Vermilion Sea; what a beautiful name! Interesting article – I echo the wish to see more like it.

  50. Jill -  January 15, 2011 - 11:28 am

    I’d like to see an article about the history behind some of the more obscure state names, like Arkansas or Oregon.

  51. Wes -  January 15, 2011 - 11:28 am

    The Dead Sea has no fish living in it, because it is so salty. Just some specially adapted bacteria and other microorganisms.

  52. Misanthrope -  January 15, 2011 - 10:58 am

    @Mike: I’m almost for certain that when they refer to colors in this article, they’re referring to general colors (i.e., red, yellow, black, white, etc.) instead of more specific, trivial ones.


  53. phil -  January 15, 2011 - 9:54 am

    Do you know how jazz got its name?

  54. Srishti Sood -  January 15, 2011 - 9:53 am

    What about the dead sea ? Why is it called that?

  55. Lloyd -  January 15, 2011 - 9:39 am

    Great article, thank you.

  56. Luke -  January 15, 2011 - 9:09 am

    I think a regular article on various place names as you have done
    here, would be more than welcome, at least from my point of view.
    Thanks for this one. I knew about the Red Sea, but the others
    were new to me.

  57. Zac -  January 15, 2011 - 9:07 am

    Yeah but I’m pretty sure the Coral Sea is named for the coral reefs located in it, not for anything having to do with a peachy color.

  58. Ian -  January 15, 2011 - 8:46 am

    Check out the literal translation on the Arabic name for the Mediterranean: “The Middle White Sea.” I wonder if there is a connection there as well…

  59. Trisha Craig -  January 15, 2011 - 7:54 am

    And then why is the Dead Sea called that?

  60. Never -  January 15, 2011 - 7:50 am

    Mike: Silly me; here I was assuming it was called that after the fact that it had coral. ;)

  61. David Knight -  January 15, 2011 - 7:49 am

    I love the challenges, keep up the good work. We forget a lot of our geography. Please send or list more trivia. Good Job

  62. Clayton Newberry -  January 15, 2011 - 7:26 am

    Add a fifth one, for you have overlooked a seldom-used name for the Gulf of California / Sea of Cortez, between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico: viz., Vermilion Sea.

  63. Ethan -  January 15, 2011 - 6:52 am

    interesting facts given

  64. CAM -  January 15, 2011 - 5:46 am

    @ Mike (January 14, 2011): i thought the Coral Sea was named such, because of the great amounts of Coral located within it? like the Great Barrier Reef (GBR as it’s also refered to)

  65. Charles McKinney -  January 15, 2011 - 5:41 am

    Yes, I find this information quite appealing, especially since I enjoy learning about geography and cartography. One can never gain too much knowledge!

  66. Ezekiel Rage -  January 15, 2011 - 2:09 am

    I personally found this article quite gratifying, not to mention, illuminating.

    However, you ought to have done justice to both the Black and Red seas by plainly elucidating their locations, just as you did with the Yellow and the White. A vague reference to the Indian ocean and Egypt with regard to the Red sea, and a hint of Turkey, vis-a-vis the Black sea, clearly won’t suffice.

    Nevertheless, the Black sea is an inland sea between south-east Europe and Asia; the Red sea is situated between the Arabian Peninsula and north-east Africa.

  67. Turelnoc1 -  January 15, 2011 - 1:52 am

    This is not bad effort, relatively good content. Like to know about “colour” seas. But I’ve never heard of Chartreuse and Mauve Sea. What is a chartreuse anyway? It’s pretty good. And also why put something about Turkey when it has no relevance to colour-name seas. Also, Turkey is named after Ataturk. No relevance to turkey bird (not much, more Ataturk less turkey bird). Also I never heard of the White Sea either. First time, which means Hot Word put some “did-you-knows” in this thing. Like the article. Not too bad. I’d rate like, around 6.5 out of 10. But anyway this article is a personal best because no offence but you could improve them, try looking over spelling, grammar and punctuation before publish. I hope Hot Word that you take in these words and use them to improve your articles because I like to see some improvement. If anyone could answer questions it would be much appreciated. Thank you very much for looking over my comment.

  68. Chris -  January 15, 2011 - 12:56 am

    Now this was a fascinating and very well researched and written article. Yet it only receives 3 comments? Why don’t people appreciate the good as much as they criticize the “bad.” I very much appreciate the diversity of ideas and etymology that Dictionary.com provides – from the political, to the geographical… to everything in between!

    Mahalo from Hawaii!

  69. govind -  January 14, 2011 - 10:10 pm

    fantastic article

  70. Mike -  January 14, 2011 - 10:07 pm

    I live in Queensland Australia and the body of water off our coast is the Coral Sea and I think you’ll find coral is a colour.


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