Etymonline shows


c.1300, from O.Fr. orenge (12c.), from M.L. pomum de orenge, from It. arancia, originally narancia (Venetian naranza), alteration of Arabic naranj, from Pers. narang, from Skt. naranga-s "orange tree," of uncertain origin. Loss of initial n- probably due to confusion with definite article (e.g. une narange, una narancia), but perhaps influenced by Fr. or "gold." ... Not used as the name of a color until 1540s.

I am really interested in more details on why 'orange' (fruit) was chosen to represent the color. Also, if there are sources that systematically deal with names of colors in different languages or changes over time that would be very interesting, too. Colors are an example of a very stable (static) concept with corresponding terms ('main' colors) for which throughout history there had been a need (more or less important) to have words for.

Bonus question is — what was orange called before 1540s in English?

  • 3
    I think "orange" was just "yellow" before 1540. I used to study color vision and I remember one study about how to determine standard color sets in different cultures. I think it mentioned the introduction of "orange" into the English language by way of the fruit. I'll see if I can find it for you.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jun 3, 2011 at 13:33
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    Related: Yellow versus orange.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jun 3, 2011 at 13:42
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    I can't remember the exact article, but this is a summary of cognitive versus linguistic concepts for color that has some really interesting information. I think the article I'm thinking of is one of the referenced ones, but I don't have my old library on this computer.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jun 3, 2011 at 13:47
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    @Unreason: I'm not necessarily convinced colors are an example of a very stable concept. The visible spectrum itself is arbitrarily divided by our culture into seven colours. Some languages don't even distinguish green from blue, let along orange from red/yellow. English speakers rarely use cyan to help subdivide shades of blue. And Homer often said the sea was wine-coloured. I think it's all a bit vague. Jun 3, 2011 at 14:59
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    @FumbleFingers, you have a point, maybe concept is not the right word; I wanted to say that for example blue had always had a wavelength of 440–490 nm and the way we physically perceive it did not change since invention of language (disregarding color blindness as probably not significant for etymology). It is also an immediately available physical attribute. As for not distinguishing; Japanese do, it's just that they have a word for both, similarly how Russians would perceive English word blue - as they have dark and light blue as separate. On the note of blue, Homer used wine-dark sea.
    – Unreason
    Jun 3, 2011 at 15:39

5 Answers 5


To support the explanation offered by Philoto invoking the intuitiveness of deriving the colour name from the fruit name one can only notice that the phenomenon is a widespread one, observed in many languages and suffering only a few notable albeit easily understandable exceptions.

Here is a whirlwind tour of the various family of names for the fruit and its distinctive colour.

  1. The first family is the Anglo French Orange and all its cognates
    • Italian arancia (fruit) => arancione (colour).
    • Spanish naranja (fruit) => naranja (colour).
    • Portuguese laranja (fruit) => [cor de] laranja (colour).

  2. In Europe, the sweet orange was first grown in Portugal in the 15th century 1 so that the fruit has a different name all around the mediteranean:
    • Greek πορτοκάλι "portocâli" (fruit) => πορτοκαλί (colour).
    • Rumanian portocală (fruit) => portocaliu (colour).
    • Arabic the common word (for the sweet Orange is) برتقال, burtuqāl (the persian نارنج, nāranğ is only used for the bitter varety). The colour name is identical burtuqāl.
    • Napolitan: purtuall2. AFAIR the colour name is identical.
    • Turkish: portakal but the colour is turuncu from Persian nârenji (نارنجی) => The bitter variety.
    • Persian: porteqâl (پرتقال) (meaning both sweet orange and Portugal) and nârenji (نارنجی) meaning both the colour and the bitter variety.

  3. In chinese, the colour (橙色 chéngsè) is named after the fruit (chéng, or 橙子 chéngzi) as well.


  1. One notable exception is the common case of many northern countries in which the fruit has two concurrent names. an older one taken from Old Dutch appelsien 3 now sinaasappel and a newer one taken from English orange. In which case the colour itself is most of the time a cognate of orange.

    • German: Apfelsine (old) but still present in Apfelsinensaft ‘orange juice’. Now Orange (with Orangensaft). colour: orange
    • Danish/Norwegian: appelsin for the fruit, orange/oransje for the colour
    • Icelandic: Appelsína, colour appelsínugulur (orange-yellow).
    • more to the east: Russian and even Mongolian : апелсин . colour: oранжевый.
  2. In Dominican Republic, the orange colour is actually called "mamey" after the local fruit named Mammee. One has to mention though that they do have oranges over there but these are actually green. The Mammey instead is... orange. QED.

Note 1
German Wikipedia
Während die Bitterorange spätestens im 11. Jahrhundert nach Italien gekommen ist, wurde die süße Variante erst im 15. Jahrhundert nach Europa eingeführt, wo sie zunächst fast ausschließlich in Portugal angebaut wurde.

Translation: Although the bitter variety was already known inItaly in the 1th Century, the sweet variety was not introduced into Europe until the 15th Century, where it was grown almost exclusively in Portugal.

Note 2
Napolitan people will tell you that it comes from French "Pour toi" but that's folk etymology

Note 3
appelsien = Chinese Apple. There is no relation with the original sin although many German contemporary oil paintings depict Adam and Eve together with the snake coiled inside an orange tree.

  • Re the Icelandic example , the colour is appelsínugulur (orange-yellow).
    – misterben
    Jun 4, 2011 at 13:59
  • This is really terrific, Alain. My hat's off to you for this effort. Fascinating stuff. I wonder what's so compelling about the orange?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jun 4, 2011 at 18:33
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    Thanks @Kit. Glad you liked it. Its colour is quite distinctive and it has a lovely taste. It is actually the most grown fruit on Earth. It must be popular then. Jun 4, 2011 at 20:19
  • +1 Interesting stuff. I remember looking it up after learning in Finnish: the colour is oranssi, the fruit is appelsiini. Both are loanwords, probably from Swedish. Apple, by the way, is omena.
    – Hugo
    Jun 4, 2011 at 22:07
  • The fruit is 橙 or 橙子 chéngzi in Chinese; 色 means ‘colour’ and is only part of the name of the colour, not the fruit. Incidentally, it's very common to call oranges 橘子 júzi, which is really more specifically a tangerine or mandarin (in itself a reverse etymology, as it were, the fruit being named after the orange robes worn by Chinese mandarins/officials). Nov 16, 2014 at 11:07

Wikipedia article states this:

The colour is named after the orange fruit, after the appearance of the ripe fruit. Before this word was introduced to the English-speaking world, the colour was referred to as ġeolurēad (yellow-red).

Why orange? I'd speculate, that saying yellow-red was a bit awkward (was it a mixed colour or, say, half-yellow and half-red?) and oranges happened to be the most natural source of this colour. At least I cannot think of any other. Except for sun, but it's not always orange.

  • 3
    There is another natural source: pumpkin. Jun 3, 2011 at 14:10
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    @Kit I think in the 16-th century they were evenly exotic (or pumpkins could've been nonexistent there yet, after all they were imported from America)
    – Philoto
    Jun 3, 2011 at 14:19
  • 1
    @Kit We can try to start saying the sun is pumpkin at sunset. Together?
    – Philoto
    Jun 3, 2011 at 14:25
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    At the bottom of all these comments, I mischievously whisper carrots.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jun 4, 2011 at 18:36
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    @Kit, I miscievously mumble that carrots come in all sorts of colours, but the Dutch cultivated orange ones from purple carrots in the 17th century to support Dutch independence and -- what else? -- the House of Orange. :)
    – Hugo
    Jun 4, 2011 at 22:39

Before the 1540s, orange was just a shade of yellow. Colour is a continous spectrum, so who says there's seven colours in the rainbow? There's six, or twenty, or 20,000 or millions of shades depending on how far you break it down.

Just like, how many fractions are there between 0 and 1? Halves? Thirds? Quarters?

  • 1
    wiki: "A rainbow spans a continuous spectrum of colours—there are no 'bands.' The apparent discreteness is an artefact of the photopigments in the human eye and of the neural processing of our photoreceptor outputs in the brain. Because the peak response of human colour receptors varies from person to person, different individuals will see slightly different colours, and persons with colour blindness will see a smaller set of colours. However, the seven colours listed below are thought to be representative of how humans everywhere, with normal colour vision, see the rainbow"
    – Unreason
    Jun 6, 2011 at 8:12

In English the colour Orange clearly used to be called Red; hence Robin Red-breast which is actually orange. Other examples are red deer, red head, red kite and red squirrel.

  • What do you mean by 'clearly'? All the robins, deer, kites and squirrels where I live are clearly red, not orange.
    – Chenmunka
    Mar 7, 2016 at 12:19

Orange was called "orenge".

The color 'orenge'. ORANGE = the name of a fruit. (F.,- Ital., -Pers.) The pl.orenges is in Sir T. Elyot, Castel of Helth, b. ii. c. 7. ' "Colour of orenge"' occurs in 1. 7 of a 15th-century ballad beginning 'O mossie Quince,' pr. in Chaucer's Works, ed. 1561, fol. 344, back; and see Orange in Prompt. Parv. O. F. orenge (14th century), Littre; later changed into orange, ' an orange ; ' Cot. The form should rather have been narenge, but the initial 'n' was lost, and arenge became orenge under the influence of F. 'Or' (Lat.aurum), gold ; because the notion arose that the name denoted the golden colour of the fruit. Ital. arancio, an orange, an orange-tree. Cf. Span, naranja, Port.laranja (put for naranja), an orange. Pers. ndranj, ndrinj, also narang, an orange ; Rich. Pers. Diet. p. 1548. Cf. Pers. ndr, a pomegranate. Source: AN ETYMOLOGICAL DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.BY REV. WALTER W. SKEAT,

It is recorded in the ballad by Chaucer.

O Mossie Quince........ https://books.google.nl/books?id=bO5LAAAAcAAJ&pg=PR16&lpg=PR16&dq=%27O+mossie+Quince,%27&source=bl&ots=V2CwoJVdbR&sig=f4ASsRqsQzW-Q7o9cC1O9dDIi78&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjwgKif94HdAhXC26QKHTO8D1kQ6AEwA3oECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q='O%20mossie%20Quince%2C'&f=false

  • 1
    You should really fix the formatting in this answer. However, I don't see "colour of orenge" as convincing evidence that orange was a color at that point in time. It seems to be similar to saying that, for example, someone has "hair the color of dirt" but it wouldn't make sense to say that someone has "dirt hair" because "dirt" isn't a color (hopefully this makes sense).
    – Laurel
    Aug 23, 2018 at 1:25

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