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What was orange first – the colour of the fruit?

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Posted November 10, 2018

Orange fruit is delicious. It is sweet and sour and just great. It is also orange, which is convenient, because the same word “orange” can be used to describe both the colour and the fruit. But have you ever wondered what was the original meaning of this word? Is the fruit called “orange”, because of the colour or the colour is called “orange” because of the fruit?

Orange fruit helped defining the orange colour. Image credit: Petr Kratochvil via Wikimedia

This confusing question actually has a simple and definitive answer, but let’s take a walk before it. Sweet orange that we love so much is actually a domestic plant – it is not wild. It was created through some ancient selection methods to make the fruit taste a bit sweeter. In fact, it is a hybrid between a non-pure mandarin orange and a hybrid pomelo. Orange probably originated in ancient China, where it was first mentioned around 314 B.C. It spread through the Arab world, but it took some time before it finally reached Europe. It is believed that Moors introduced oranges to Europe before the 10th century. However, oranges really started spreading when Portuguese merchants started travelling and selling them. But let’s jump back to the original question.

The word “orange” actually was meant to define the fruit. It was a long way, but it finally became English during the middle ages. It originated from Dravidian “narandam”, which became “nāraṅga” in Sanskrit and “nārang” in Persian. In Arabic oranges were called “nāranj”. These words were spreading through Italy and French. In fact, English got their “orange” from the French “pomme d’orenge” or simply “orange”. Only in the beginning of the 16th century English started using “orange” to describe the colour between yellow and red. But what was it called before?

Well, it was pretty much called red or “reddish-yellow”. Sometimes it was called “crog” too, but before the orange came along another fruit was considered the benchmark of the orange colour. It was saffron, so some things were “saffron-colour”. Therefore, like the egg before the chicken, orange fruit came before the orange colour.

However, in many languages oranges are actually named after Portuguese people, who were selling them throughout Europe. For example, in Albanian “orange” is “portokall”, in Bulgarian – “portokal”, Greek – “portokali”, Macedonian – “portokal”, Persian – “porteghal”, Turkish – “portakal”. Meanwhile in other languages, such as Lithuanian, Latvian, Russian and others, derivatives of a Dutch “appelsien” are used (“appelsien” – “chinese apple”).

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