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Orange You Glad to Know: The Secret of the Laziest Fruit in English

It's fall and almost time for Halloween, and that means we're in the midst of the annual orange revolution. Pumpkins are everywhere, leaves are turning, and half of the tacky things you can put on your door are now orange.

But when we say orange in English, we can either mean the fruit or the color. What laziness led to the use of the exact same word for the fruit and its color? Why don't we call carrots or pumpkins oranges instead? Or why don't we call the color pumpkin or carrot? Which came first anyway: the orange, or orange?


Well, between oranges, pumpkins, and carrots, oranges have the longest history in the Anglosphere. It was brought to Europe in the late 15th century by Portuguese and Italian merchants, and it quickly became well-known throughout Europe.

Carrots and pumpkins came to the attention of the English later. Pumpkins are native to the Americas, and so weren't on the table in time to be the protoypical orange food. Carrots, meanwhile, were purple until the 17th century. The Dutch, in a fit of patriotic fervor, decided they wanted carrots to be orange because their country was ruled by the dynasty from the House of Orange.

It turns out that we have no record of a word in Old English for the color orange. What we do have, however, is a clear history which shows that the fruit gave us the name for the color, and not the other way around. Middle French and Anglo-Norman records indicate knowledge of the fruit prior to its arrival in Europe, dating back as far as the year 1200.

Some of the earliest records in English proper date to the early and mid 15th century. One source (John Mirfield's Sinonoma Bartholomei) defines the orange: "Citrangulum pomum, orenge" and another (John Paston, in his letters) connects the orange with pregnancy cravings, saying of a certain "Dame Elysabet Calthorpe" (please accept this wikipedia page on her husband William in the absence of one on her; she's the second Elizabeth Calthorpe he married) that she "is a fayir lady and longyth for orangys, thow she be not wyth chyld."


It wasn't until 1557 that we see the word used to mean the color of the fruit. The color is mentioned in the Statutes at Large of Great Britain, volume VI.

Coloured cloth of any other colour or colours..hereafter mentioned, that is to say, scarlet, red, crimson, morrey, violet, pewke, brown, blue, black, green, yellow, blue, orange, [etc.].


It's nice to see that puke (pewke) is also recognized as a color.

This means that for over a century, English speaking people wishing to refer to the color orange could only do so if they used approximations like "the color of oranges." No wonder they just cut to the chase and started using the name of the fruit. It was easy, and probably saved everybody a lot of time when trying to explain things to their tapestry artists.


And looking to some of the Romance languages, since they imported the word into Europe, we see a bit more clearly that the fruit is the original. In Italian, the arancia is of the color arancione. In Spanish, the naranja is anaranjada (and knowing Spanish roots more than I do any of the other Romance languages, the adjective is formed as if it were a participle, which makes it seem to say that the fruit has been oranged). The Portuguese laranja is both, but if you want to say refer to a thing that is orange, you would say alaranjada, and in Romanian the portocală is portocaliu (they're just like fuck it, these things are Portugals and they are Portuguese-colored).

French is the oddball. The orange is orange and things that are orange are just orange. No wonder our language was so lazy about it. The French already had us beat.


So now we know. The fruit came first and we named the color for the fruit. It's fortunate that it's that way around. It's far less embarrassing to name a color after a fruit than to be so lazy as to look at a fruit, wonder what to call it, and say "Screw it, just use the color." We dodged a bullet there, English.

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