The human eye can distinguish millions of shades of color, subtly discriminating small differences of energy along the visual spectrum.
No language, however, has words for more than about 1,000 of these, even with compounds and metaphors (for example, a color term like “watermelon red” or “midnight blue”). Most languages have far fewer, and almost no speakers of any language, other than interior designers or cosmeticians, know more than about 100 of these.
In whatever language, the available color words cluster around a small category of what linguistic anthropologists often call basic color terms. These words do not describe a color; they merely give it a name. They are focalizing words, and are usually defined as “the smallest subset of color words such that any color can be named by one of them.” In English, for example, “red” is the basic color term for a whole range of shades that we are willing to think of (or are able to see) as red, whereas the names we give any of the individual shades are specific to them and don’t serve a similarly unifying function. Scarlet is just scarlet.
Most of the individual words for shades of red take their names from things that are that particular shade: maroon, for example, which comes from the French word for chestnut—or burgundy, ruby, fire engine, or rust. Crimson is a little different: it comes from the name of a Mediterranean insect whose dried bodies were used to create the vibrant red dye. Magenta is also different. It takes (or, rather, was given) its name from a town in northern Italy, near which Napoleon’s troops defeated an Austrian army in June 1859, during the Second Italian War of Independence.
But whatever the source of these color names, all of these are just implicit adjectives, in each case modifying the withheld noun “red.” Sometimes, however, the link of the referent to its color seems a bit obscure. In 1895, a French artist, Félix Bracquemond, wondered exactly what shade of red “cuisse de nymphe émue” (thigh of the passionate nymph) might refer to. Unsurprisingly, that name didn’t last very long, but a successful cosmetics company today does sell a lipstick color it creepily calls Underage Red.
All the other basic color terms in English are like red in that they similarly subdivide into descriptive color words mostly derived from things that are that particular shade. Green, for example, works this way. Chartreuse takes its name from a liqueur first made by Carthusian monks in the 18th century. And there is emerald, jade, lime, avocado, pistachio, mint, and olive. Hunter green takes its name, unsurprisingly, from a shade of green worn by hunters in 18th-century England. Hooker’s green takes its name from . . . No. It takes its name from William Hooker, a 19th-century botanical artist, who developed a pigment for painting certain dark green leaves. No one is quite sure about Kelly green, beyond an association with Ireland. Perhaps it is the imagined color of what leprechauns wear.
Orange, however, seems to be the only basic color word for which no other word exists in English. There is only orange, and the name comes from the fruit. Tangerine doesn’t really count. Its name also comes from a fruit, a variety of the orange, but it wasn’t until 1899 that “tangerine” appears in print as the name of a color—and it isn’t clear why we require a new word for it. This seems no less true for persimmon and for pumpkin. There is just orange. But there was no orange, at least before oranges came to Europe.
This is not to say that no one recognized the color, only that there was no specific name for it. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” the rooster Chaunticleer dreams of a threatening fox invading the barnyard, whose “color was betwixe yelow and reed.” The fox was orange, but in the 1390s Chaucer didn’t have a word for it. He had to mix it verbally. He wasn’t the first to do so. In Old English, the form of the language spoken between the 5th and 12th centuries, well before Chaucer’s Middle English, there was a word geoluhread (yellow-red). Orange could be seen, but the compound was the only word there was for it in English for almost 1,000 years.“Orange, however, seems to be the only basic color word for which no other word exists in English. There is only orange, and the name comes from the fruit.”
Maybe we didn’t need another one. Not very many things are orange, and the compound works pretty well. “Where yellow dives into the red the ripples are orange,” as Derek Jarman says.
By the mid-1590s, William Shakespeare did have a word for it—but only just. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom’s catalog of stage beards includes “your orange tawny beard,” and later a verse in his song describes the blackbird with its “orange tawny bill.” Shakespeare knows the color orange; at least he knows its name. Chaucer doesn’t. Shakespeare’s sense of orange, however, is cautious. His orange exists only to brighten up tawny, a dark brown. Orange doesn’t make it as a color in its own right. It is always “orange tawny” for Shakespeare. He uses the word “orange” by itself only three times, and always he uses it to indicate the fruit.
Through the late 16th century in England, “orange tawny” is commonly used to mark a particular shade of brown (even though chromatically brown is a low-intensity orange, though no one then would have known that). The word “tawny” often appears alone; it names a chestnut brown, sometimes described as “dusky.” “Orange tawny” lightens the color, inflecting the brown away from red toward yellow.
The prevalence of the compound demonstrates that orange was recognizable as a color word. The compound wouldn’t work otherwise. Nevertheless, it is still surprising how very slowly “orange” on its own begins to appear in print. In 1576, an English translation of a third-century military history written in Greek describes the servants of Alexander the Great dressed in robes, some “of crimson, some of purple, some of murrey, and some of orange colour velvet.” The translator is confident that “murrey” will be identifiable—it is a reddish purple, the color of mulberries—but he needs to add the noun “colour” after “orange” for its meaning to be clear. It is not quite orange yet, but merely the color that an orange is.
Still, two years later, Thomas Cooper’s Latin-English dictionary could define “melites” as “a precious stone of orange color.” In 1595, in one of Anthony Copley’s short dialogues, a physician tries to ease the anxiety of a dying woman by telling her that she will contentedly pass away “even as a leaf that can no longer bide on the tree.” But the image seems to confuse rather than comfort the woman. “What, like an orange leaf?” she asks, obviously referring to the color of the leaves in autumn rather than to the leaf of the fruit tree. But what is most significant about these examples is that they might be the only two 16th-century uses in English printed books of “orange” used to indicate the color. In 1594, Thomas Blundeville had described nutmeg losing its “scarlet” color and turning “unto the color of an orange.” But this, of course, is referring to the fruit. “Orange” was still struggling to be the word for orange.
There are lots of references to the House of Orange, which still today is officially part of the name of the royal family of the Netherlands (Orange-Nassau); but this use of “Orange” comes neither from the color nor the fruit. It takes its name from a region in southeastern France still known as “Orange.” The earliest settlement came to be known as Aurenja, after the local water deity, Arausio. There are no oranges in this story and nothing orange. (And although it is often claimed that orange carrots were bred to celebrate the House of Orange in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, that is an urban legend—although it is true, according to the historian Simon Schama, that in the 1780s, during the Dutch Patriot Revolution, orange “was declared the colour of sedition,” and carrots “sold with their roots too conspicuously showing were deemed provocative.”)“What happened between the end of the 14th century and the end of the 17th that allowed ‘orange’ to become a color name? The answer is obvious. Oranges.”
Only in the 17th century does “orange,” as a word used to name a color, become widespread in English. In 1616, an account of the varieties of tulips that can be grown says that some are “white, some red, some blue, some yellow, some orange, some of a violet color, and indeed generally of any color whatsoever except green.” Almost imperceptibly (though of course it was entirely a function of perception), orange did become the recognized word for a recognizable color, and by the late 1660s and 1670s, the optical experiments of Isaac Newton firmly fixed it as one of the seven colors of the spectrum. It turns out to be exactly what (and where) Chaucer thought it was: the “color betwixe yelow and reed.” But now there was an accepted name for it.
What happened between the end of the 14th century and the end of the 17th that allowed “orange” to become a color name? The answer is obvious. Oranges.
Early in the 16th century Portuguese traders brought sweet oranges from India to Europe, and the color takes its name from them. Until they arrived, there was no orange as such in the color spectrum. When the first Europeans saw the fruit they were incapable of exclaiming about its brilliant orange color. They recognized the color but didn’t yet know its name. Often they referred to oranges as “golden apples.” Not until they knew them as oranges did they see them as orange.
The word itself begins as an ancient Sanskrit word, naranga, possibly derived from an even older Dravidian (another ancient language spoken in what is now southern India) root, naru, meaning fragrant. Along with the oranges, the word migrated into Persian and Arabic. From there it was adopted into European languages, as with narancs in Hungarian or the Spanish naranja. In Italian it was originally narancia, and in French narange, though the word in both of these languages eventually dropped the “n” at the beginning to become arancia and orange, probably from a mistaken idea that the initial “n” sound had carried over from the article, una or une. Think about English, where it would be almost impossible to hear any real difference between “an orange” and “a norange.” An “orange” it became, but it probably should really have been a “norange.” Still, orange is better, if only because the initial “o” so satisfyingly mirrors the roundness of the fruit.
The etymological history of “orange” traces the route of cultural contact and exchange—one that ultimately completes the circle of the globe. The word for “orange” in modern-day Tamil, the surviving Dravidian language that gave us the original root of the word, is arancu, pronounced almost exactly like the English word “orange” and in fact borrowed from it.
But none of this actually gets us to color. Only the fruit does that. Only when the sweet oranges began to arrive in Europe and became visible on market stalls and kitchen tables did the name of the fruit provide the name for the color. No more “yellow-red.” Now there was orange. And, remarkably, within a few hundred years it was possible to forget in which direction the naming went. People could imagine that the fruit was called an orange simply because it was.
From On Color by David Scott Kastan with Stephen Farthing, published by Yale University Press in May 2018. Reproduced by permission.