Re: What came first, orange, or oranges

Ok, I can deal with this answer, but it begs another one: how did we refer to the colour orange before we decided to base it on the fruit? It’s not like orange is some kind of bizarre freakish colour like ‘fuscia’ or ‘magenta’. It’s a secondary colour! What colour were pumpkins, or the sky during sunset? Help!

Here’s the original post:

Before the color term orange came along, orange objects would have been referred to as red. This column might shed some light on color terminology: Could early man only see three colors?

Also you should note that pink wasn’t always a color term but rather the color term came from a kind of flower. Shades that we call pink were also called red before it became a color term.

Well, the division of the spectrum of light into several colors is completely arbitrary, so orange is not more or less bizarre or freakish than, say, magenta.
I’d go along with dtilque: Most likely, orange things were referred to as a bright red before the term came up.

Should future generations come up with different terms for bright and dark green, they will wonder how we could refer to those two different colors with one single word. Cecil’s column to which dtilque provided a link puts an emphasis on this.

The column can also be found on page 344 of Cecil Adams’ book «The Straight Dope (1984; reissued 1986, 1998)».

There are already people who refer to dark green as “forest” (not “forest green” which would be a description of the shade of green, but just “forest”, as well as people who refer to dark blue as “navy” (as opposed to “navy blue”), so we could be on our way already.

There are two places in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where he writes of a color between “yelow and reed”: The Knight’s Tale, line 1274, and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, line 136.

Just for a very self-centered reference: Where I was brought up (Morivis, central Puerto Rico), the fruit that is called in standard Spanish a “naranja” is referred to in dialect as a “china” (pron: CHEE-nah). When I was a wee tot, things of the orangeish color were referred to as “color chinita” (chinita being an orange soft drink, a darker shade than the actual fruit, which in natural conditions is more yellowish). Only when I made to to kindergarten did I learn there was this “official” word, anaranjado (lit. having the characteristics of an orange) to refer to that color. (BTW, “purple” I first learned as “lila”, i.e. lilac-colored; again, only in school did I learn it as “violeta”)

Further, the classification of orange as a secondary color is problematic. It is halfway between the additive primary “red” (scarlet) & the subtractive primary “yellow” (which has poor contrast against this light gray). Thus orange is red-yellow, a color analogous to yellow-green or red-magenta.

red–additive primary
red-yellow or orange
yellow–subtractive primary
green–additive primary
cyan–subtractive primary
blue (indigo)–additive primary
magenta–subtractive primary

foolsguinea, color theory guy

I vaguely remember some things about colour semantics from linguistics courses I took at university and reading since. The division of the spectrum into colours (or American colors) is entirely arbitrary. One language may have a word for “blue” which overlaps with another language’s “green”. In fact some languages have no word for “green” or have several, which may overlap with “yellow”. There is simply no arguing about colours.

But apparently the naming of colours is not entirely random. I read that if a language has only one colour word, it will designate “red”.

The next colour to be named is “black”, then “white” and “yellow”. That these four colours are the names of our “race” colours is probably not a coincidence, since the Ancient Egyptians used the same four colours (albeit for a totally different selection of races from those we have constructed for ourselves today).

The Greeks used the same word for Greek “skin tone” and for green. Today we call the Greeks “olive” complected, so in a sense so do we. But I digress. Racial colour distinctions are as arbitrary as the colours of the spectrum–everything blurs between populations, and even more so within them.

Why the colours are named in a set order is difficult to say. Perhaps striking colours are named first red versus black, black versus white, and then the finer distinctions are filled in afterwards. Or perhaps colour names are only invented by artists–the first paintings are done with ochre (red) and then soot (black) and clay-based pigments (white and yellow).

Nowadays, interior decorators, clothing designers, and marketeers invent most of our colour names. That is where we got “forest” and “navy”. Fuschia and chartreuse do not exist in nature, let alone locker rooms.

By the way, the colour “mauve” was the first entirely man-made colour invented in the laboratory. It became a “high-tech” fad in the mid-nineteenth century. It was invented by William Henry Perkins.

It reminds me of the “Blackadder” episode where the Elizabethan twit, Sir Percy Percy, invents what he calls “precious green” whilst attempting the transmutation of base metals into “gold”.

It looks a little too green to be copper sulphate. I suspect that the silly fop has discovered the secret of transmuting base metals into emeralds. Alas, a poor alchemist just gets no respect from his scientific peers, unless he is a Newton, in which case he gets to add a seventh colour to the rainbow to make it come out in accord with his wacky alchemical theories.

I think those of you who are citing Berlin & Kay’s linguistic colour theory are completely missing the point. The theory refers only to “basic” colours. For example, if a language has two basic colour terms, they will be black and white. Nothing precludes the language having other colour terms, but they will all be subsumed by one of black or white. So a speaker of a two-colour language may well tell you the sky is blue, but he will also insist that blue is merely a kind of white. Likewise, English has eleven basic colour terms (black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, pink, brown, purple, orange, and grey), and for the vast majority of English speakers, all other colours (magenta, fuchsia, aquamarine, azure, etc.) can be classified into one of the eleven basic groups.

So the original poster’s question remains unanswered. Before the discovery of the orange fruit, perhaps there was a word for the orange colour. The colour was almost certainly classified as a red or a yellow, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there was no name for it.

How does pink make the basic list (pink being a kind of red), but not beige? Is this an “official” list?

Yes, it’s “official” insofar as the vast majority of English speakers, when polled, will classify all colours into one of those eleven categories. (Many languages have fewer categories; only a couple have more.) My guess is that most Anglophones consider beige to be a kind of brown or grey (depending on the saturation), hence its absence from the list.

Any decent textbook on semantics should explain this in more detail, but if you want to read it straight from the horse’s mouth, see Berlin & Kay’s 1969 book, Basic Color Terms: Their universality and evolution (University of California Press).

And by contrast, most Americans will not refer to pink as “light red”, even though that’s what it is. Why? I don’t know, but it does seem to be true that we have a different category for “pink”.

Anyone who relies totallly on the Berlin/Kay 1969 monograph might chose to read some later scholarship which modifies some of their ideas.

While the science of color is too complicated for my feeble brain tonight, perhaps others can continue to search and let us know what it all means in simple terms.

Links which will give you a start are

I’ve done some more checking… it seems Cecil wasn’t quite clear (or was being overly technical) when he claimed that “orange” was first used to describe a colour in 1620. The OED has a citation for “orange-colour” (which it claims is the “full” form of “orange”) from 1512. The usage of “orange” referring to the fruit antedates this by some 500 years. So it seems unlikely that people indicated the colour orange by referring to the fruit before the 16th century. Most of the colours subsumed by orange seem to be relatively recent additions to our vocabulary – e.g. Mars yellow (1899). Even “reddish-yellow” does not make an appearence until 1739. Again, though, this doesn’t mean that there was never an English word for the orange colour until 1512.

So, Cecil, are you gonna answer the OP’s question? We don’t seem to be having much luck here.

From my Chambers , "n. Probably about 1380 orenge an orange (fruit); earlier, as a surname (1296); orange (before 1425); borrowed from Old French orenge, in pome dorange and in Medieval Latin pomum de orenge; alteration of Arabic naranj, from Persian narang, from Sanskrit naranga-s orange tree, possibly from Dravidian (Tamil).

…The meaning of redddish-yellow color is recorded in English before 1600."