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(n.) the colourful chest plumage of a robin; the robin itself

A favourite festive fact from last year’s HH Twitter feed did the rounds online again recently: a robin redbreast’s chest feathers are actually orange, not red, but the nickname redbreast predates the English language’s use of the word orange as the name of a colour.

We’ve talked a lot about orange and oranges before on HH, so we’ll keep this part of the story brief. Take the word back as far as it will go—via French, Latin, and Persian—and you’ll find orange has its roots in the Sanskrit word for the orange tree and its fruit, naranga. As the fruits were traded and introduced across Europe and Asia, the name travelled with them and fell into use in a slew languages from the Bay of Bengal to the Norwegian Sea:

(And a hat-tip to Reddit’s Etymology Maps for that excellent graphic.)

Eventually, the word arrived in English: the earliest reference to an orange in an exclusively English text comes from an anonymous Middle English poem, variously known as Cleanness or Purity, written sometime in the late 1300s. (FYI, a lady named Sibel Orenge is recorded in a Sussex tax record way back in 1296, but as that’s a surname, we have to leave a question mark over whether it qualifies as an English invention, or a hangover from Norman French.)

As for redbreast, it has been traced back as far as 1425, when “robynet, [or] redbrest” was listed in a Latin–English glossary as the English equivalent of “frigella”, or fringilla—a Latin word for some manner of colourful finch-like bird. European robins aren’t actually finches, of course, but we’ll leave ornithological taxonomy out of this already fairly complicated tale.

On a sidenote, the name robin itself first appeared around the early fifteenth century too, as part of a Middle English trend for attaching human names to noticeable, characterful, or frequently encountered birds. Robin is a pet form of the boy’s name Robert, and as a result, the bird that had hitherto merely been known as a ruddock in English was upgraded in the Middle Ages to Mr. Robin Redbreast. Elsewhere, the plain old daw was rechristened Jack Daw, while the Old English pie or piet became Margaret Pie, and eventually the magpie. Tom Tits and even Philip Sparrows emerged around this time too, while the bird long considered the robin’s spouse in English folklore became forever known as Jenny Wren.

But we digress—back to our oranges and reds. If you’re thinking all these dates don’t quite match the story in our original tweet, there’s one more piece of the puzzle here. Yes, written evidence shows the English-speaking world was already familiar with oranges long before our ruddock became known as the redbreast, but it’s not the fruit that’s important here. Instead, the etymological record shows it took quite a long time for English speakers to take the name of the fruit and begin using it as the name of a colour—around another 100 years, in fact.

The earliest evidence of orange as a colour names dates from the first half of the sixteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary has it around 1532, but some accounts (that we’ve not yet been able to confirm) push that date back to 1510. Either way, by that time the nickname redbreast had clearly been in use in English for well over a century. Ergo, despite its breast actually being orange, the robin forever became a ‘redbreast’ because that name predates our use of orange as the name of a colour.

And nor is the robin the only casualty of this etymological miscolouration. Our longtime lack of a word for anything the colour of—well, an orange, is what famously led Chaucer to describe the orangey fur of a fox as somewhere “bitwixe yelow and reed” in his Canterbury Tales. Without a specific word for something, clearly we all have just to make do with whatever tools we have.

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