Cool facts about the word "orange"


early English speakers couldn’t use “orange-head” as a hair color, which explains why we still use “red-head.”

Carrot top or (especially) ginger also has currency.


(cracks knuckles and stretches. Right. Let’s do this.)

Once upon a time there was a fruit which grew in the north of India, and the word for it was नारङ्ग nāraṅga, which is probably from a compound meaning “fragrant fruit”, but may be from a compound meaning “minium (red lead oxide) -coloured”. This fruit was more sour than a modern orange, but sweeter than a lemon.

It was a descendant of the citron, which originated in south east Asia, but spread to the west very early, to the extent that citrons were known to have been grown in Sumer.
[Edit: no it wasn’t. The Naranj is a relative of the Citron, but not a descendant of it.]

During the early Middle Ages, this fruit moved west. When it reached the Middle East the word entered Persian as نارنگ‎ nārang, and Arabic as نَارَنْج nāranj (which was borrowed back into Persian. Then it bounced around the Meditteranian. In each place the word was mangled a bit to suit local phoneme sets. In Italian, for example, the initial n dropped off, and the final /d͡ʒ/ sound was modified into “-cia” /t͡ʃa/, thus: arancia. In Spain, the /d͡ʒ/ turned into /h/, thus naranja.

In the 16th Century, Portuguese traders brought another new variety from China. The bitterness was replaced with a sweet strong flavour, and this new variety started moving east again. This was called a “Portugal orange” or, as we know it in English, a “Valencia orange”. And you see this word also across the Mediterannean: portogallo in Venetian, πορτοκάλι in Greek, portakal in Turkish, بُرْتُقَال‎ burtuqāl in Arabic, پرتقال‎ portoqâl in Persian. Note that these mean the sweet variety. In most of these places, not only are the naranj still grown, they’re still a part of the cuisine. (I was talking about his once with an Iranian colleague, who was quite nostalgic for the taste of naranj, which she had great difficulty finding in Australia.)

When the fruit moved north into the German-influenced regions, they weren’t having with this “Portugal” nonsense, so they called it a “Chinese Apple”, Apfelsin in German, apelsin in the Scandinavian languages, and so on.

But what about the colour? You’d be amazed how late some of the colour names entered common use, and it’s even more difficult when you take different concepts and divisions of colours in different languages into account. In Russian, for instance, “Light Blue” голубой goluboy and “Dark Blue” синий siniy are as different as “red” and “pink” are in English. But even there, the concept of “pink” is relatively new (as these things go), and the colour used to be called “rose” and considered just a light red rather than a colour in its own right.

So for most of the Middle Ages, the colour Orange was not well defined, and could be thought of as yellow in some contexts, and red in others. The Old English geolurēad was as good as approximation as you’d find. I know while researching this in the context of carrots (long story) I came across an Arabic herbal which described the varieties of carrot, and described how some were purple, or whitish, but others were yellow, or “coloured like unto flames of fire”. Which seems to me to be “describe the colour orange without referring to an orange”.

The orange fruit does provide a good reference, and a lot of languages did take it up for the name of the colour… but which fruit? In Persian and Farsi, they chose the bitter version for the colour: نارنجی‎ nârenji is the colour. In Arabic and Greek, the sweet version took that honour: بُرْتُقَالِيّ‎ burtuqāliyy and πορτοκαλής portokalís respectively.

Even when oranges were available to use as a reference, not every language used them as such. And this continued up to very recently. Take, as an example, Irish.

Famously, the Irish flag is green, white, and orange. And when the Saorstát Éireann chose that as its flag, it had to describe it in Irish. Irish has, of course, a word for the fruit: oráiste. But they didn’t think this was dignified or classical enough for the flag, but in the lack of any other word in Irish for the colour, they had to invent one. So they chose, basically, “redyellow”: flannbhuí (where buí is yellow, and flann is “scarlet, bloodred”. As opposed to dearg or rua. Irish is another of those languages whose colour divisions don’t match up to English’s.)
And the canonical dictionaries (published in 1959 and 1977) agree that oráiste is a noun, and refers to the fruit. The colour is flannbhuí, although you could get around that by saying le dath oráiste air “with the colour of an orange on it” = “orange-coloured”.

This doesn’t match with the modern Irish language, though, and the newest dictionaries do reflect that you can say an rud oráiste “the orange thing”. Basically, the Irish shows the process of the word “orange” going from fruit to colour in living memory.


Oh, and how did we get “orange” from “naranj”?

For the same reason we have “apron” and “nickname”. When you had the indefinite article in Middle English, the “n” in “an” sometimes got confused as to whether it belonged on the article or the word.

“A naperon” became “An apron”
“An eke-name” became “A nickname”
and “a narange” became “An orange”.


It all comes full circle. Brown is what you get when you mix all the kiddie paints. Black is when you remove all the colors in science.


If more engineers had orange brassieres…, or something along those lines.


I always learned it as “orange rhymes with door-hinge”

Wonder if that is NE USA thing or if my family was just weird…


I’ve never used flannbhuí, only oráiste. The only time I’ve ever used flannbhuí was in describing the colour of the national flag, and only then because it was mentioned in some piece of prose.

Very nice rundown!


“Glás” nó “Uaine”?

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Glás le mé fein.


Are you sure? Did the word not start out meaning the same fruit then? Both our sweet and bitter oranges originate from crosses between mandarins and pomelos; citrons were involved in other hybrids like lemons and limes.

Looking them up online I can see why though. It’s not just the case that one is light and one is dark, the way pink and red differ, but rather one is closer to green and the other to violet. So these were for instance separated by Newton when he divided the spectrum into ROYGBIV… голубой is his blue and синий is his indigo. Now though we usually call indigo blue, so need other words like teal or cyan or turquoise for the color that Newton meant by it.


Citron is Citrus medicus

The Naranj is the Bitter Orange, Citrus aurantium

And the Valencia Orange that we think of first is Citrus Sinensis and the variety of cultivars.


Ok. Those articles go with what I said then…both C. × aurantium and C. × sinensis are given as crosses between C. maxima (pomelos) and C. reticulata (mandarins) rather than descendants of C. medica.


I will take this into consideration.


According to Citrus taxonomy - Wikipedia, Citrons and Pomelos are both pure citrus species, C. aurentium is, as you say, a Pomelo crossed with Mandarin, and C. sinensis is a distinct variant of C. aurentium.

So I was wrong to say that they’re all derived from Citrons.

In my defence: dammit Jim, I’m a linguistics geek, not a botanist.


Newton was at that liminal time when alchemy and chemistry, astronomy and astrology were still being disentangled.

He split Blue into Blue and Indigo not because he knew about the Russian language, but because he was a mystic, and was of the opinion that 7 is a more numerically meaningful number than 6. Not least to go with the seven planets: Sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. (That is, the seven known planets, where “planet” meant “wanderer”, a celestial object which visibly moved in relation to the sphere of fixed stars, as opposed to the stars themselves, which were defined by how they don’t move.)


The Orange Order is An tOrd Oráisteach, but I suppose that not many Irish speakers care about whether it sounds dignified enough.


Like Wiki says:

Fuair siad an t-ainm ón Rí Protastúnach Liam Oráiste a bhí an bua aige i gcoinne an Rí Caitliceach Seamús II Shasana sa bhliain 1690 ag Cath na Bóinne.

Wait, not everyone speaks Irish?

They got the name from the Protestant King William of Orange who had the victory over the Catholic King James II of England in the year 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne.


I am kind of curious where you got that relationship too. Not that Newton was not into mysticism, but for instance searching through his Opticks finds no mention of the planets in that context, while he gives a very definite other reason for seven colors – they correspond to the intervals of the musical scale, with orange and indigo as the semitones.

Newton's color and note wheel

Nonetheless you can see that if he had included blue and indigo together it would have been a larger slice than the others. And I think that kind of holds up…not that computer monitors replicate the spectral colors particularly well, but here is a typical example:

Electromagnetic spectrum

So I wasn’t saying that he was copying Russian, just that the two colors there are about as different as the others he separated, so unlike red and pink it’s kind of weird to me English traditionally hasn’t kept them apart. (Though now of course there are lots of cases where cyan or teal is treated as much a standard color as the others).


Technically, An tOrd Oráisteach isn’t “the Orange Order” as in the colour, it’s closer to “The Order of Orange”, where Oráisteach is an adjective derived from the noun (in this case, the placename) oráiste.

The old Irish annals and genealogies would have a similar thing: someone might be described as, say, “Ultach”, from Ulaidh + ach, “Ulsterish”. Sometimes they’d do it to show fosterage, too: a byname of Eóghanach probably indicated having been fostered in Tyrone, for example.