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How did the color orange get its name?

The color orange has a fascinating history behind its name. Unlike many other colors, the name “orange” did not derive from an object or descriptive term. Instead, the origin of the color name orange comes from the fruit.

The fruit connection

The name ultimately stems from the Sanskrit word nāraṅga, which referred to the bitter orange tree. This passed into Persian as nārang, Arabic as nāranj, and then into Old French as pomme d’orenge. The French term originally referred to the fruit, and it was not until the 1540s that the name “orange” began being used in English to describe the color.

Initially, the English word orange simply referred to the fruit. By the early 15th century, the word was adopted into Middle English as orenge. In medieval England, the color was actually called ġeolurēad for reddish-yellow or ġeolucumeow for yellow-orange.

It was not until 1542 that the word orange was first recorded in English as the name of the color, rather than the fruit. This was in the accounts for decorating Queen Mary’s new palace. However, even after becoming an established term for a color, orange was still commonly described as “yellow-red” in English until the 18th century.

Why the fruit was named first

The reason the fruit name came first relates to the origins of the word. When oranges were first introduced to Europe around the 11th century, there was no existing name in English or European languages for the fruit. Thus, when the word entered these languages from Sanskrit, it was referring specifically to the fruit itself.

This is different from color names that derive from descriptive terms. Words like red, yellow, and green stem from Old English and Germanic words used to describe colors before oranges arrived in Europe. However, there was no pre-existing word for the unique color of oranges, so the fruit name became adapted as the color term instead.

Early confusion with color terms

In medieval times, the English language did not distinguish orange as a distinct color. Anything orange was called red, yellow, or a combination like “red-yellow.” This was typical of how colors were categorized in Old English and other early languages.

Color vocabulary was limited compared to modern times. Red and yellow were separate terms because they were seen as “primary” colors. But shades in between were not systematically named.Colors ranged along a spectrum from white to red to yellow to green to blue to black.

Anything between red and yellow was called variations of red or yellow. Only over time did additional terms like orange emerge for colors not identified as one of the core groups.

The impact of oranges coming to Europe

The introduction of sweet oranges to Europe was a catalyst for naming the color orange. Once oranges became more available, having a name to distinguish their vivid color became more useful.

As oranges were sometimes called “yellow-red,” people may have desired a simpler, single-word term. Calling the color “orange” after the fruit made sense, since no other word for the color existed. If oranges had not come to Europe, the color may have remained unnamed for longer.

Later evolution of the color name

Although the fruit orange inspired the initial color name, the term became established as colors became categorized more systematically:

  • 1500s: “Orange” starts occasionally being used in English as a color term, although still in reference to the fruit.
  • 1542: First recorded use of “orange” as a color name in English.
  • 1570s: “Orange” becomes more common in English as a color term.
  • 1700s: Orange is by now widely accepted as a color name in English and most European languages.
  • 1800s: Orange becomes further standardized as a distinct color when color science arises.

While orange was originally derived from the fruit, its evolution into an everyday color term followed wider trends in how colors were classified linguistically. Still, it may never have become a standard color name if not for the initial influence of the vivid orange fruit captivating Europe.

Unique naming pattern

Very few colors in English derived their names from fruits. Along with orange, only one other potential example is the color lime, which came from the green citrus fruit. Most colors took on descriptive names like red, yellow, or black, or were named after plants, minerals, and other objects.

This makes the linkage between orange the fruit and orange the color quite singular. It was a coincidence of timing, with a new fruit inspiring the naming of a previously unnamed shade in between red and yellow. If oranges had not arrived in Europe around the same time as the color lexicon was expanding, orange might have remained classified only as a variant of red or yellow rather than a distinct color.


In summary, the color orange originated as the name of the orange fruit that was newly introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages. As there was no existing English word for the vivid orange tones of the fruit, the fruit name was adapted as the color term. This unusual naming method led to the unique link between the fruit orange and color orange that persists to this day. While orange was initially just referred to the fruit, it was later established as a color name in its own right in the 16th century as English color vocabulary expanded.