Words in the News

black and white

© Royalty-Free/CORBIS
Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

Posh parties don’t usually make the mainstream news, but the Conservative party’s annual Black and White Ball is rather different. This exclusive bash, which gives donors the chance to rub shoulders with the party’s most powerful politicians, up to and including the PM, was held this year in the glorious surroundings of the Natural History Museum. The museum’s entrance hall used to house a greatly loved reproduction skeleton of a huge dinosaur, fondly known as Dippy the Diplodocus, but s/he has recently been replaced by a breathtaking skeleton of a female blue whale. I’ll leave you to make the jokes.

Guests at the ball, who allegedly pay around £10,000 a table, dined on smoked sea trout, beef with kale, and what some wit has labelled Brexit juice: English sparkling wine. They were able to bid in a silent auction for lots including a working day with the Prime Minister, dinner in Edinburgh with the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, and dinner with the defence secretary Gavin Williamson in the Churchill war rooms. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson maintained his maverick reputation by wearing–gasp–a red tie.

Anyway the point of this post is not to marvel at the habits of the elite, but to look at the phrase black and white. As you might expect, it has an ancient history in English, the OED giving 1395 as the date of its first citation as a purely descriptive phrase. Its use to refer to black letters or images on a white background goes back to the late 16th century, quite some time after the invention of printing. Putting something in black and white, meaning to place it on record, dates from the same time. The photographic meaning (later applied to TV and other screens) dates back to the mid 19th century, unsurprisingly; while the metaphorical use–for saying that something is not clearly right or wrong–is slightly older: the OED dates it to 1838.

In the course of researching this post I discovered two uses that were new to me: black and white photos have been referred to as black and whites since 1830, while a police car in the US is sometimes called a black and white. Black and white may not be true colours at all, but black and white is a surprisingly colourful expression.

Email this Post Email this Post

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

Leave a Comment