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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a colour midway between red and yellow

bright orange pumpkins

What came first: orange or oranges? (Shameless plug: there’s more on this in the HH fact book, Word Drops.)

The fact is that there was no word for the colour orange in the English language until oranges first began to be imported into England with any regularity in the early Middle Ages. Before then, anything orange coloured simply had to be described in terms of red and yellow, as in this description of a fox from Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale:

His colour was bitwixe yelow and reed,
And tipped was his tayl and both his eeris

[His colour was between yellow and red,
and tipped was his tail and both ears.]

The earliest record of the word orange—which derives at length from the Sanskrit word for the orange tree, naranga—comes from the Sinonoma Bartholomei, a fourteenth century Latin herbal textbook that listed all the plants known to have medical applications. And there, on page 15, “orenge” was listed as the English equivalent of the Latin “Citrangulum pomum”, or “citrus fruit”.

The colour orange didn’t appear until around a century and a half later. In 1557, orange cloth was listed in a legal document, collected in the so-called Statutes at Large in the late sixteenth century, that prohibited the selling of all fabrics except those of a certain set of colours:

And moreover, be it enacted by the authority aforesaid that no person nor persons … shall sell or put to sale within the realm of England any coloured cloth of any other colour or colours than are hereafter mentioned, that is to say, scarlet, red, crimson, morrey, violet, pewke, brown, blue, black, green, yellow, blue, orange, tawny, russet, marble grey, sad new colour, azure watchet, sheeps colour, lion colour, motly, iron grey, friers grey, crane colour, purple, and old medley colour, most commonly used to be made above and before twenty years past.

Thank goodness “sheeps colour” made the final cut, frankly. And same goes for the “sad new colour”, otherwise HH would have nothing left to wear. But Chaucer’s foxes and Tudor English sartorial rules and regulations aside, it’s clear that in this particular chicken-and-egg situation, it was the chicken that came first: the bright orange fruits gave the colour orange its name, not vice versa.

All in all, it’s a colourful little story.

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