Monday, March 05, 2007

Which came first, orange the fruit or orange the color?

Who's asking: Tod Goldberg, La Quinta, CA

This is a simplified version of Tod's question, which made my head spin: "Were oranges called oranges before the color orange was called orange?"

The answer to Tod's question is yes. The answer to the simplified version is that the use of the word "orange" to identify the tree and the fruit dates back to about 1300, but the first recorded use of the word as a color wasn't until 1542.

Color naming actually turns out to be a field of considerable linguistic research. In researching the the "red light stop/green light go" question, I learned that words for color develop relatively late in a language, although people can certainly see differences between shades (e.g., teal and turquoise) even when they don't have words to describe the difference. This caused problems for European traders as recently as the 19th century, as several trading groups in Africa, Asia and Australia used the same word for the colors blue and green.

Of course, no one needs words for colors that don't occur in their own environment. A 1956 study of the Zuni language found that, before exposure to English, native speakers had words only for colors we call pink, red, brown/yellow/orange, green, blue, and purple (weirdly, linguists didn't show the test subjects anything white, black or grey; presumably, they had words for these colors, too). Those are the colors of the Zuni landscape. Native speakers who spoke English as well started to distinguish between yellow and orange, green and light green, and blue and light blue.

Dizzy and I drove south yesterday, and color returned to the world with each state border we crossed. The snow was pretty much gone by the time we left Connecticut; here in Washington, things are already starting to be green. It feels like a slab of ice slipping off my shoulders.


steve d said...

This is exactly why I feel it would be better if we all simply referred to colors in terms of specific wavelength. This way instead of the subjective "berry-berry blue" we can be clear that the color is actually 475 nm. There is no confusion in that.


Anonymous said...

Wasn't it Tod who asked the red means stop/ green means go question? And don't you expect Tod to give you head-spinning questions or observations?

Tim and I still argue (lightly, mind you) about what is blue vs. what is green. I've read that men and women truly do see those two colors differently. But I also blame it on Tim having been an art director for so long; and he, of course, claims that means he is always correct.

Meanwhile, we agree: wouldn't it be a fun job to name paint colors?


AnswerGirl said...

The red-means-stop/green-means-go question actually came from my nephews, Matthew and Henry!

Anonymous said...

Ah. Wonder why I thought of Tod?


Lefty said...

This is a great question.

steve: "Oh dear, your eyes are so 460 nm this evening. Kiss me!"

Kathleen said...

i read something else that said the color came first. where did u find the info on that oranges came first?

AnswerGirl said...

This post is several years old, but I'm pretty sure my primary source was the Oxford Dictionary.