The Grammarphobia Blog

Which “orange” came first?

Q: I am an ethnobotanist studying the connection of plants and people (and language sometimes). One thing I have always wondered is why the color orange is the same as the name of the fruit in so many European languages. I wondered if the name for the fruit came from the name for the color or vice versa. Do you have any insight into this botanical/language puzzle?

A: The short answer is that the color was named for the fruit.

So we’ll trace the fruit first. It originated in China, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and moved westward, first to India, then the Middle East, then into Europe, and eventually the Americas. Not surprisingly, the word for the fruit followed, changing a bit en route.

Now for the color. Each step of the way, the word for the color seems to have followed the word for the fruit. Our word for the fruit, “orange,” may have originated in Dravidian as a word meaning something like “fragrance” (Dravidian is a family of languages, including Tamil, from the Indian subcontinent).

It’s then thought to have entered Sanskrit as narangah, then moved into Persian as narang, and Arabic as naranj. Arabs introduced the orange into Spain (it’s naranja in Spanish), and from Spain it spread to the rest of Europe. I’ll skip the French and Italian versions of “orange,” and go directly to English.

“Orange” (the noun for the fruit) entered English in the 1300s, but “orange” (the color, both noun and adjective) wasn’t recorded until the 1500s. (Why did it take the English-speaking world 200 years to see this connection? One of the great mysteries of linguistics. No doubt the fruit was a rarity and not often close at hand.)

So what did we call the color before we had the word “orange”? It seems that the color was known in Old English as geoluhread, which meant (and even sounded like) “yellow-red.”

Why did we switch to “orange” for the color? I can only speculate that when the fruit (and the noun for it), came along, it was a perfect match for a color that previously had been only imperfectly described. Small cries of “Eureka” must have followed the orange around the globe.

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