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Was orange a fruit or a color first?

Was orange a fruit or a color first?

The word “orange” is used to describe both a color and a fruit, which often leads to the question – which came first, the color orange or the orange fruit? There is some debate around the historical origins of the word orange and whether it was first used to refer to the fruit or the color.

The Fruit

The orange fruit originated in Southeast Asia and grew wild for thousands of years. The earliest mention of orange trees is found in Chinese manuscripts dating back to 2500 BC that reference the cultivation of citrus fruits. Oranges made their way from Asia to the Mediterranean region around 100 AD through trade routes like the Silk Road. They were initially luxury items only available to the wealthy.

Sweet oranges likely originated as a hybrid of pomelos and mandarin oranges. They arrived in Europe during the late fifteenth century, after Portuguese merchants brought them back from their trading posts in Asia. The House of Braganza started cultivating oranges in Portugal around 1447, which helped make oranges more readily available in Europe.

In the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers introduced sweet oranges to the Americas by bringing them to Florida. By the mid-eighteenth century, oranges were being grown commercially in Florida and California, which allowed more people access to the popular fruit.

The Color

The first recorded use of the word “orange” to refer to the color in English dates back to 1512. A line in a poem by William Dunbar refers to “…norange coloris…” to describe clothing. This predates the earliest known use of “orange” to refer to the fruit, which appears in a 1530 translation of a French work mentioning “…pommes d’orenge.”

Before orange became established as a color name in English, the color of oranges was often referred to as “yellow-red” or “geoluhread” in Old English. TheRomans called the distinctive hue of ripe oranges “malum medicatum” meaning “medicinal apple.”

The introduction of the orange fruit to Europe sparked a need for a name to describe the fruit’s distinct color. The use of the French word “orenge” was likely adapted into English to fill this void.

Etymology of Orange

The origin and route the word “orange” took to enter the English vocabulary is key to determining if it was first a color or a fruit. Etymological research shows the path was:

  • From the Sanskrit word nāraṅga (नारङ्ग) referring to the orange tree and fruit.
  • Borrowed into Persian as nārang.
  • Adapted into Arabic as nāranj (نارنج).
  • Entered Italian in the 10th century as the name of the orange fruit – arancia – derived from nāranj.
  • Became pome d’orenge in Old French, referring to the orange fruit.
  • Evolved into orange in modern French, still meaning the fruit.
  • Adopted into Middle English in the 15th century as “orange” to refer to the fruit.
  • First recorded use as the name of a color in 1512.

This etymological evidence shows that “orange” entered the English language first and foremost as the name of the fruit and was later adapted as a color term.

Why Orange May Have Become a Color Term

Some theories suggest reasons why the color orange was late to be assigned a name compared to other colors like red, yellow, green, and blue:

  • The orange fruit originated in Asia and was unfamiliar to most Europeans until the 16th century when trade expanded.
  • Saffron and rust were used to achieve orange shades in dyes and pigments. The orange color was seen as a variant of yellow or red.
  • There was no orange pigment in the famous painters’ pigment sets used through the Renaissance.
  • Royal colors were prominent in medieval times. Orange was not a noble color associated with European monarchies.

Once oranges became more common and orange paint pigments were developed, having an official name for the distinctive color became more useful.


Research into the etymology and earliest uses of the word “orange” points to it originating as the name of the fruit. The color orange borrows its name from the fruit. While the exact dates are uncertain, the word orange was likely used to refer to the fruit first and became adopted as a color name later out of necessity to describe the fruit’s vivid hue.

So in summary – the orange fruit came before the orange color!