What came first, the orange or…orange? Did someone just make the un-creative decision to name the citrus fruit after its color? (That’s how the blueberry got its name, after all.) Or did the color get its name because of the fruit? In terms of perplexing origin stories, this one is right up there with the chicken vs. the egg. Luckily, though, this one is much more easily solved!
So which came first, the color or the fruit? The answer is…neither. Well, one did come before the other, but neither was actually the first meaning of the word. The linguistic ancestor to today’s word “orange” was actually first used to describe the tree that the fruit grows on. The word’s roots can be traced all the way back to Sanskrit. In that language, the word nāranga meant “orange tree.” Nāranga evolved into the Persian word nārang and the Arabic word nāranj. If you know Spanish, these old words might look very familiar—the modern Spanish word for “orange” is “naranja.” (You won’t believe that this common word is one of the world’s hardest to translate.)
As the word evolved, it eventually came to mean the fruit, not just the orange tree. Old French adapted the Arabic word nāranj as “pomme d’orenge” (“the fruit from the orange tree”) or just “orenge.” Speakers of Middle English adopted the phrase; the Middle English equivalent “pume orange” dates back to the 13th century AD.
The word didn’t come to describe a color until almost 200 years later, making the fruit the clear winner. In 1512, a description of the color using the word “orange” appeared—in a rather strange place. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of the word first appeared in…a will.
So, the only mystery that remains is…how did people describe the color before 1512? According to Huffington Post, speakers of Old English used the word geolurēad, meaning “yellow-red.” But thanks to an Old French word, the color orange has a name all its own. And a unique name, at that—”orange” doesn’t rhyme with any other word in English. We bet you didn’t know that these 10 words don’t either.