What came first, oranges – the plump citrus fruit – or orange – the name of the juicy red-yellow color?
Perhaps surprisingly, the fruit came first. The first time the word “orange” was documented in the English language was around the late 14th century CE, when it was used to refer to the fruit, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It was not until over a century later that “orange” was used to describe a color.
The word entered Middle English from Old French and Anglo-Norman “orenge.” However, it’s also apparent that the word has some clear phonic similarities to the Spanish and Portuguese names for the fruit, “naranja" and "laranja", which are linked back to Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic words for the fruit tree.
A bunch of other languages use the same word for the color orange and the fruit, including French, German, and Hungarian. However, plenty of languages have separate words. For instance, in Scandinavian languages like Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian, the fruit is called “apelsin” or “appelsin”, which means something like "Chinese apple". Meanwhile, they describe the color as "orange" or "oransje".
As you can see, many European languages have a word for the fruit that links back to the geographic origin of oranges, among the southeast foothills of the Himalayas in a region that encompasses part of India, northern Myanmar, and China. Around the time the word emerged in Europe, the fruit was starting to be brought over from Asia by traders and appearing in local markets.
Before the introduction of this word, it’s likely that speakers of Middle English would have referred to the color as geolurēad, literally yellow-red.
You might be wondering, why didn’t English speakers name the color “orange” after another fruit or vegetable, like pumpkins or carrots? Well, pumpkins weren’t introduced to Europe until the colonization of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, while carrots weren’t widely orange-colored until the 16th century (before selective breeding, they were pale and white like parsnips). It seems that medieval Europe would be a very un-orangey place.
Let’s not even get into how the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for blue and described the sky as the color of “copper".