What Came First: The Color Orange or the Fruit?

This isn't as tough as the whole chicken-and-egg conundrum.
This isn't as tough as the whole chicken-and-egg conundrum. / (Oranges) MeXaHuK/iStock/Getty Images; (Frame) Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

In 2012, reader Erica wrote in with a question about oranges. Is the fruit named for its color, or is the color named for the fruit?

The answer to this question is actually pretty simple: Orange the fruit was definitely named before its corresponding color was. 

How Did the Orange Get Its Name?

Less simple is how the orange got named in the first place. The fruit is generally thought to hail from the Malay Archipelago and other parts of tropical Asia. “Orange culture probably spread from its native habitat to India and the east coast of Africa and from there to the eastern Mediterranean region,” Britannica explains. “The Roman conquests, the development of Arab trade routes, and the expansion of Islam contributed significantly to this dispersal.”

It’s possible that the original name for oranges also hailed from tropical Asia, and inspired various versions in other languages as the citrus snack spread northwest. There are certainly plenty of similar terms for orange documented during the 1300s (or thereabouts), especially in Italy, where Arab traders introduced what we now know as Seville oranges during the Middle Ages. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, regional Italian examples like naranza and narans likely derived from the Arabic nāranj, whose etymological trajectory includes the Persian nārang and the Sanskrit nāraṅga

There are also expressions like the 13th-century Anglo-Norman phrase pume orenge, the slightly later Old French version pomme d’orenge, Germany’s Pomeranze, and Italy’s melarancio—all of which essentially mean “orange apple” and arose as a way to describe the fruit that came from orange trees. (To English speakers, the Older Scots and the Dutch versions are even more on the nose: appil orange and oranjeappel, respectively.)

When Did Orange Become a Color?

By the 1400s, the word orange—for the fruit—had finally made its way into the English lexicon. It took another century or so for English speakers to co-opt it to describe the reddish-yellow color of said fruit and anything else that matched it. The earliest instance is from a 1532 Scottish account book that lists “Ane 1/2 elne orenze veluot,” meaning half a measure of orange velvet. Oringe and orenge also cropped up in various printed materials, but orange eventually became the standard spelling.

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A version of this story originally ran in 2012; it has been updated for 2023.