What came first, orange the colour or orange the fruit?

The answer is: the fruit came before the colour.

The word came into English in around 1300 like a game of pass the parcel, through a number of other languages. Its closest ancestor is the Old French orenge. Before that, it came from Italian in several forms, including: naranza, arancio and narancia. The Italians borrowed the word from Arabic traders, who used the form naranj, and it is suggested that the Arabs first acquired the fruit from India, since Sanskrit and Tamil have similar words: naranga and naram respectively.

The original word wasn’t actually used to refer to the fruit but to the tree, which was introduced in Italy in the 11th century. The tree was cultivated widely across southern Europe but the fruit from this variety of orange tree, the Persian orange, was much bitterer than the oranges we eat today. Sweet oranges were brought to Europe from Indian by Portuguese traders in the 15th century and became known as Portuguese oranges. The sweeter Portuguese oranges quickly replaced bitter Persian oranges and now, in English and most other languages, we don’t distinguish between the two. In Greek, however, there is still a linguistic distinction, between the bitter nerantzi and the sweet portokali.

The colour orange didn’t appear until the 1540s, although another word was used: ġeolurēad, meaning yellow-red. The first known example comes from a will written in 1557:

‘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.].’

The initial n- was lost possibly out of confusion with the indefinite article (a norange becomes an orange) or out of analogy with the French or, meaning ‘gold’.

The fact that orange has become a symbolic colour of the Netherlands through the expression House of Orange for Dutch royal family is, in fact, originally etymologically unrelated to both the colour and the fruit.

The House of Orange comes from a town in France named Orange, which is technically unconnected to the colour and the fruit although its spelling and pronunciation may have been influenced through analogy. When the Dutch royal family obtained the principality in 1544, they also took the name, which they kept even after giving Orange back to France in 1713.

As for the unfamiliar colours listed in the will, pewke was much nicer than it sounds, being an inky blue colour and morrey or murrey was a deep purple-red.


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