Which "Orange" Came First: the Color or the Fruit?

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You may know nothing rhymes with "orange," although Eminem might disagree (watch out for language on that link). But have you ever wondered if the color was named after the fruit or the other way around? There's an answer to that question, and it might not be the one you'd expect.

Coloring in the Past

Oranges didn't make their way to England until the 13th century, but the color was there long before that. After all, leaves all over the world turn orange every autumn, sunsets descend into the same orangey glow, and orange flowers can be found in many places throughout the realm. So you might be surprised to find out that English speakers didn't name the fruit after the color they were so familiar with — instead, they finally got a name for the color they'd been seeing from this new-found citrus.

The first recorded usage of the word in English is "pume orenge," from sometime around 1200 C.E., and it definitely descends from the Old French term "pomme d'orange," which translates to "orange apple" (just like the French word for "potato," "pomme d'terre", means "apple of the earth"). It's used as an adjective in that Old French term, but it came to France as "nāranj," which was the noun used by the Arabic-speaking Moors of 10th century Spain. In turn, that word had its origins in the Sanskrit word "nāranga." That's where the trail goes a bit cold, but we do know that the fruit was bred sometime around 500 B.C.E. in Southeast Asia, and some linguists believe that its ultimate origin is a Dravidian word meaning "fragrant."

Orange Before Oranges

So, wait a second. We started off this article talking about all of the orange things that people knew about before the word "orange" entered the English language (not to mention all of the other languages it traipsed through on its way to London). So what did people call sunsets and autumn leaves before they knew about the sweetest citrus around? There was a word, and it was almost as descriptive as it was unimaginative: "ġeolurēad," which in Old English roughly means "yellow-red."

English isn't the only language that needed some prodding to come up with a distinct word for that warm, bright color. According to linguist Dominic Watt from the University of Leeds, "a name for a mixture of red and yellow is actually pretty rare cross-linguistically." The color's fruit-based origin isn't unique, however. Watt points out that apricot, peach, violet, lilac, maroon, indigo, and burgundy were all named after an object, not the other way around.

You might be amazed by how much there is to learn about oranges. Journalist John McPhee was. He meant to start writing "Oranges" as a short magazine article, but the history of the fruit soon became a full-on book. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Which Came First, the Fruit or the Color?

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 10, 2018

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