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This is something that bugged me before I studied linguists, and it still does - why is the word "orange" so often used for both the colour and the fruit cross-linguistically? Every language I've learned has these items as the same word, or at least very similar origins. English (orange), Polish (pomarańczowy), Italian (arancione/arancia) and Nepali (suntala). Granted, these are all Indo-European languages but they do cover quite a spread, and my sister tells me that Mandarin has the same feature with chéng referring to both the fruit and the colour. I'm assuming that languages have borrowed the work for the colour on the basis of the fruit, and not the other way around but I may be wrong.

I know that oranges are a relatively recently introduced fruit to many places, but is this phenomenon as cross-linguistically common as it appears from my limited experience. And if so, why?

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Just for the record: although in Portuguese the color is most commonly called "laranja" (orange), in some dialects it is also known as "cor-de-abóbora" (pumpkin color). –  Otavio Macedo Sep 30 '11 at 0:24
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@hLaureng. Just for the record, this question has already been asked on EL&U. –  Alain Pannetier Sep 30 '11 at 6:19
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@AlainPannetier - thanks! I didn't think of looking there because my question wasn't just English specific, but your answer there is great. Would you mind bringing your answer across here as well for everyone else to read? –  LaurenG Sep 30 '11 at 6:46
    
oh, and @OtavioMacedo I really like that example - I've never figured out why more languages didn't use other rather orange things like pumpkin or marigolds as sources, but at least some Portuguese speakers appear to! –  LaurenG Sep 30 '11 at 6:48
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Are we going to end up with one question for every single word in every single language? eep –  kaleissin Sep 30 '11 at 6:49

7 Answers 7

up vote 22 down vote accepted

In a situation where you want to refer to a colour and either you don't know of any name for that colour or you know the name but you also believe your interlocutor doesn't know it - you'll instinctively resort to the evocation of an object characterised by that colour.

The same holds true for other senses by the way. Would you rather say for instance "there's a smell of rotten egg" or "there's a smell of hydrogen sulfide"?

So, unless one wants to tell the policeman "I think the light was still in the 580-620 nm range when I crossed!", we need aliases for colours.

As for the orange colour, interestingly enough, the Old English word was "geoluread" (PDE yellow-red, G. gelb-rot). One has to say that in those times, very few people in England had had a chance of seeing real oranges.

The fact that oranges are quite alone in their category of orange-coloured objects added to their simple shape and the consistency of their shade probably explains why people commonly used it as a reference for the colour and that the name of the fruit became the name of the colour.

One can only notice that the phenomenon is a widespread one, observed in many languages and suffering only a few notable albeit easily understandable exceptions.

Here is a whirlwind tour of the various family of names for the fruit and its distinctive colour.

  1. The first family is the Anglo French Orange and all its cognates
    • Italian: arancia (fruit) => arancione (colour).
    • Spanish: naranja (fruit) => naranja (colour).
    • Portuguese: laranja (fruit) => [cor de] laranja (colour).

  2. In Europe, the sweet orange was first grown in Portugal in the 15th century1 so that the fruit has a different name all around the mediteranean:
    • Greek: πορτοκάλι "portocâli" (fruit) => πορτοκαλί (colour).
    • Rumanian: portocală (fruit) => portocaliu (colour).
    • Arabic: the common word (for the sweet Orange is) برتقال, burtuqāl (the persian نارنج, nāranğ is only used for the bitter varety). The colour name is identical burtuqāl.
    • Napolitan: purtuall2. AFAIR the colour name is identical.
    • Turkish: portakal but the colour is turuncu from Persian nârenji (نارنجی) => The bitter variety.
    • Persian: porteqâl (پرتقال) (meaning both sweet orange and Portugal) and nârenji (نارنجی) meaning both the colour and the bitter variety.

  3. In Chinese, the colour (chéngsè 橙色, lit. orange-colour) is named after the fruit (chéngzi 橙子, lit. orange+[substantive marker]).


Exceptions

  1. One notable exception is the common case of many northern countries in which the fruit has two concurrent names. an older one taken from Old Dutch appelsien3 now sinaasappel and a newer one taken from English orange. In which case the colour itself is most of the time a cognate of orange.

    • German: Apfelsine (old) but still present in Apfelsinensaft. Now Orange (with Orangensaft). colour: orange.
    • Danish and Norwegian : appelsin => Appelsinjuice; colour: Orange/Oransje
    • Icelandic: Appelsína; colour appelsínugulur (orange-yellow).
    • more to the east: Russian: апелсин; and the colour: oранжевый.
  2. In Dominican Republic, the orange colour is actually called "mamey" after the local fruit named Mammee. One has to mention though that they do have oranges over there but these are actually green. The Mammey instead is... orange. QED.


Note 1
German Wikipedia:
Während die Bitterorange spätestens im 11. Jahrhundert nach Italien gekommen ist, wurde die süße Variante erst im 15. Jahrhundert nach Europa eingeführt, wo sie zunächst fast ausschließlich in Portugal angebaut wurde.

Translation: Although the bitter variety was already known inItaly in the 1th Century, the sweet variety was not introduced into Europe until the 15th Century, where it was grown almost exclusively in Portugal.

Note 2
Napolitan people will tell you that it comes from French "Pour toi" but that's folk etymology

Note 3
appelsien = Chinese Apple. There is no relation with the original sin although many German contemporary oil paintings depict Adam and Eve together with the snake coiled inside an orange tree.

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Nice answer, but are you sure "橙色" is the fruit? 色 in chinese means "color" basically. The Chinese name for orange is 橙子, the reading is chéng zi (not chéng sè) which why I think you mixed it. Tangerines, similarly, are called 桔子, read as Júzi. –  Alenanno Sep 30 '11 at 10:33
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@Alenanno. Absolutely right. Thank you. BTW I'd like to share a foolish idea about the etymology of this character. The left part is obviously the 木 "mù" radical (tree) and the right part is 登 "dēng" which means "to ascend". Now if you look at the oldest recorded versions of this character. You can see a man climbing up a ladder to pick fruit. Even on today's character you can clearly see the two hands on the top. –  Alain Pannetier Sep 30 '11 at 11:15
    
Is that an established etymology? It's very interesting anyway! Thanks for sharing it :) P.S. I edited your answer, corrected the links and some formatting. :) –  Alenanno Sep 30 '11 at 13:10
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@Alain: No, 登 is merely a phonetic. The distance between 登 and 橙 isn't much. –  Zhen Lin Sep 30 '11 at 16:28
    
@Alenanno, thank you so much for your editing. "Is that an established etymology?". No it's, as I said, a "foolish idea" and @ Zhen Lin just confirmed that. Axel Schuessler's "ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese" (p. 208) at the 登 "dēng" entry has 'to ripen' [Meng]" where Meng stands for 孟子 mèngzǐ. Take a look at B01843. –  Alain Pannetier Sep 30 '11 at 19:18

I think hippietrail is on the right track. Two things are worth mentioning:

  • a famous study by Berlin and Kay on the subject of color term hierarchies in language (e.g. if a language has a word for "blue" it must also have a term for "red," whereas the reverse does not hold). Lots of follow-up research has been done on this subject. "Orange" is relatively high on the hierarchy, i.e. according to the theory a language must already have a lot of other color terms before it can develop a word for "orange."
  • The English word "pink" comes from the name of a flower (also "pink"). Many other IE languages have a word derived from "rose" for this color. Irish has "white-red," though (no idea if this is a neologism). "Pink" is also high on the Berlin & Kay hierarchy.
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This relationship is called polysemy: when one meaning tends to be so close to another meaning that the word for one is generally co-opted as the word for another.

One of the most reliable examples of polysemy is container polysemy. The idea is that a container is so closely associated with its contents that we can use the term for the container to refer to its contents. Here's a minimal pair:

  1. I broke the bottle of wine.
  2. I drank the bottle of wine.

(Only the glass container can be the object of break; only the liquid inside can be the object of drink.)

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I believe that orange is not just a recently introduced fruit in many parts but that the concept of a colour word for this shade is also recent.

Recall that many languages do just fine with much fewer colour words than English has.

In some languages "orange" doesn't always have full status as a normal adjective but may sometimes be a circumlocution like "orange colour" or "colour of orange".

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Yes, I know that orange is rather far down the list of colours that are found in a language (on something like a Berlin and Kay analysis) - but I never figured out why they all found inspiration in the same foodstuff. –  LaurenG Sep 30 '11 at 6:47
    
Well when you try to think of common orange things, especially non-modern or fairly universal things it's hard to come up with much. For instance where I grew up the typical colour for pumpkins is green (-: –  hippietrail Sep 30 '11 at 9:54
    
If the word would have to be coined in modern Berlin, it would relate to waste collection (and street cleaning), as the color of their cars and clothes is orange :-) –  Paŭlo Ebermann Oct 1 '11 at 19:32

I don't have enough rep to add a comment to the OP, so I will give you this information in an "answer". In Hebrew the fruit "orange" is a new idea, and thus has a new word. However, instead of calling it by the colour orange (which would be כתום "Katom" in Hebrew) we call it a תפוז "tapuz" which is a portmanteau of "golden apple". So the fruit is in fact named after a colour, but not the colour of it's peel.

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Do you know where "כתום" comes from? Is it an ancient Hebrew word or did Ben Jehuda devise it? –  hippietrail May 15 at 23:31

In Malayalam, the color is now said orange (loan from English):

ഓറഞ്ച്(നിറം)
oorañčə(niram)
[ˈoːrɐɲdʒɐ(ˈnɪrɐm)]

:( The fruit is said orange too: ഓറഞ്ച്

As for pink, there's a choice between

ഇളംചുവപ്പ് iLamčuvappə [ˈiɭɐmˈtʃʊʋɐppə] (light-red) and the English loan:

പിങ്ക്(നിറം) pinkə(niram) [ˈpiŋkə(ˈnɪrɐm)]

Unfortunately, most of these ''new'' colors and shades in Indian languages are just borrowed directly from English, even in mainstream Tamil (which is known for its purism).

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I agree with tom sugnetic. Even though the color names in tamil are borrowed from english, there was/still is an attempt to create new words by using tamil roots. Name for each new color is formed by combining the names of the basic colors which form it. Generally, (veLLai) white and (kaRuppu) black are used to show the intensity/brightness of the new color.

For example, orange is called as "whitish red". (வெண்சிவப்பு in tamil)

dark blue is called as "blackish blue" (கருநீலம்)

pink is called as "younger red" (இளஞ்சிவப்பு) Around 100 new names are invented for colors in tamil.

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