Friday, November 30, 2012

Which came first? The color or the fruit?


Once your friends know that you’re the sort of person who likes food words, they assume you’ve got an encyclopedic database in your brain that you can access at a moment’s notice. There you are, out for an evening with friends, when suddenly—wham!—the questions start coming. Do flour and flower have anything in common? Do turkeys come from Turkey? Do brussel sprouts really come from Brussels? Why’s it called “French toast”? Which came first, the color orange or the fruit orange?

So many people have asked me about that last one that I thought I’d set the record straight—at least, to the best of my ability.

In a word: the fruit.

For such an everyday fruit—as the commercial used to sing, “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine”—the orange had quite a history before it landed on English-speaking shores. It’s native to China where one of the earliest varieties eaten was the mandarin (which is, of course, also the name of the major language spoken in the country). From there it traveled to India where it acquired the original form of its modern name. In Sanskrit, the fruit was a nāranga, which, as centuries passed, was adapted by the Persians as nārang, the Greeks as narantsion, and by the Arabs as naranj. Moorish traders brought the fruit with them across northern Africa to Morocco with its port city of Tangier (think tangerine) and up to Spain where it became a naranja, just as it still is in today’s Spanish. While the Moors were introducing their Arabic-named fruit to Europe via Spain, though, Italy and France had acquired their names arancia and orange from the Latin aurantium (which seems to have added aurum, “gold,” to the Greek name) and it was from the French that English speakers received the name for their beloved yellow-red citrus fruit.

Phew. And Michael Pollan talks about the carbon footprint of today’s fruits and vegetables?

As for the fruit itself: in the 1190’s, Richard the Lionheart and his crusaders enjoyed eating oranges in Jaffa (think Jaffa oranges), but it was in 1289 that seven oranges, along with fifteen lemons, 230 pomegranates, and assorted dried fruits, were purchased from a Spanish ship for Queen Eleanor (wife of Edward I, affectionately known as Edward Longshanks)

So much for the fruit. More could be written of the different names given to the bitter (or Seville) orange and the sweet (or China) orange; and more could be written of the French town Orange (which originally had nothing whatsoever to do with the fruit but was later confused with it), but the color beckons . . .

There’s no written record of orange as the name of the color until 1512, when it was used in a will drafted in the court of King Henry VIII. (You have to wonder what the actual wording of the will was—“Item: one orange robe to my eldest daughter”?) Obviously, the color existed before someone thought to identify a robe (or whatever it was) as “orange.” Just think of the mnemonic for the colors in a rainbow, ROYGBIV, which stands for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Rainbows existed before their colors had those names, so you have to wonder what someone would have called the color between the R and the Y had he or she lived in, say, the year 1000? 

 That’s easy.

Geolecrog, the Old English word for “yellow-red.” And yellow-red is what people used to call the color before “orange” appeared on the scene—sort of the way “blue-green” was how people described the color before the 19th-century English art critic John Ruskin had the good sense to call it “aquamarine” (“while the sun was up, the ever-answering glow of unearthly aquamarine . . . melted in the sun”) after the blue-green gem stone beryl. 
So there you have it. The fruit had already been an orange for about 250 years before someone had the bright idea to use its name for something, whatever that something was, that had the same reddish-yellow color. And the rest, as they say, is history.


  1. Cool. This question had never occurred to me, now I feel less ignorant.

    1. Now don't you wonder which came first: the color or the flower violet? My vote goes to the flower.