The origin of the word “orange” and whether it was named for the color or the fruit first has been debated for centuries. While both orange the fruit and orange the color have existed for thousands of years, the exact etymology is difficult to pin down.
Etymology of “Orange”
The word “orange” ultimately derived from the Sanskrit word नारङ्ग (nāraṅga) which referred to the bitter orange tree. This made its way into Persian as نارنگ (nārang) and Arabic as نارنج (nāranj). From there it entered European languages such as Old French as pume orenge and Italian as arancia or arancio. In the early 16th century, English borrowed the word as “orange” from French.
At first, the English word orange only referred to the fruit. The first recorded use of “orange” to describe the citrus fruit was in the early 1300s. The earliest known use of orange to mean the color was not until the late 1500s.
So while the fruit meaning is older, by the time the word made its way into English, both meanings were already established.
Etymology of the Color Name
Before “orange” referred to the color, the English word for the hue between red and yellow was “geoluhread” derived from the old Germanic words for yellow and red. However, the word fell out of use. When English borrowed “orange” in the 16th century to refer to the fruit, it soon began to be used for the color as well.
Some credit this shift to the fruit first. Sweet oranges brought over by Portuguese merchants were a luxury item in Europe. The bright color of the fruit inspired other “orange” items like clothing, banners, and house paint. Thus the fruit’s name became associated with its color too.
Others argue the color term developed independently. Some medieval languages like Old Provençal had words for the color that sound like “orange” but are unrelated etymologically. This suggests the color was establishing its own name separate from the fruit.
Here is a timeline summarizing the history of “orange” as a color and a fruit:
|1200s||“Orange” first used in English to refer to the fruit|
|1300s||Sweet oranges introduced to Europe by merchants|
|1500s||“Orange” first used in English to refer to the color|
|1540s||First recorded use of “orange” to mean color in English|
As we can see, the fruit meaning came first, but by the time the word entered English, it was likely already evolving to signify a color as well.
The Fruit vs the Color Today
Nowadays, both meanings of “orange” are ubiquitous. But studies show more people associate “orange” with the color first. In a survey conducted at Princeton University, 98% of respondents said “orange” makes them think of the color rather than the fruit.
When used as a noun, “orange” almost always refers to the fruit. As an adjective for the color, “orange” dominates usage. Other terms like “tangerine” or “amber” are sometimes used for variety but far less common.
English speakers today see orange as denoting a color more so than orange the fruit. But the early coexistence of both meanings makes it hard to know for certain whether the color or fruit came first etymologically.
The origin of the word “orange” is complex, with the fruit meaning appearing in English first around 1300 AD, followed by the color meaning in the 1500s. While the fruit meaning came first etymologically, the word was likely evolving to describe the color simultaneously. By the time it entered English, both meanings were already established. So in summary:
- The fruit meaning is older etymologically, dating back to Old French and Old Italian.
- But the color meaning is not far behind, emerging independently in some languages before English adopted “orange.”
- Today “orange” is more associated with the color than the fruit, though both meanings are commonly used.
- The close timeline makes it difficult to say definitively whether the color or the fruit came first.
While the jury is still out on whether “orange” was truly named after the fruit or the color first, both meanings have clearly evolved together over centuries to give us two unique definitions of “orange” today.
The history of the word “orange” illustrates the fluid, interconnected nature of language. As goods and ideas spread across Europe and the Middle East centuries ago, so too did their linguistic labels, often taking on a life of their own. The story of “orange” gives us a colorful insight into this process of lexical evolution.
Though its exact origins are disputed, “orange” in all its forms remains one of the most recognizable words across languages worldwide. Whether referring to a bright citrus fruit, the vibrant color of a sunset, or anything in between, “orange” undeniably has a colorful history behind its multiplicity of meanings.