Orange Was the New Red

By | October 30, 2015

If there is one color associated with this time of year (autumn, in case you are reading this in the future) it is orange. From the leaves that are falling, to pumpkins, to Halloween decorations, and, well, to Syracuse football, it’s an orange world. And yet, if I were writing this prior to the 16th century, I would have called it a red world.

The word “orange” was first used in English around 1300, coming from Old French orange or orenge, originally norange, which came from the Arabic naranj, which came from the Persian narang, and which ultimately came from the Sanskrit naranga-s. In all of these cases, the word referred only to the fruit and the tree the fruit came from, not the color. But how did people refer to things that were what we would call orange? (This was long before the Pantone Matching System.) Occasionally the word saffron was used, and there was also the word crog that also referred to things that were saffron-colored, ġeolurēad for a reddish orange, or ġeolucrog for yellowish orange. More often than not, though, they simply used the word red. So if you see a red deer, a red fox, or a robin redbreast, the thing is, they’re not really red, are they? And red-headed people do not have hair that we would really consider red, except in those cases where it has been specifically dyed red. It’s just that these things dated from a time before the word orange referred to a color.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of orange as a color is 1557 in Great Britain Statutes at Large:

Coloured cloth of any other colour or colours..hereafter mentioned, that is to say, scarlet, red, crimson, morrey, violet, pewke, brown, blue, black, green, yellow, blue, orange, [etc.].

The color orange has its origin in a legal document.

Wait…back up a sec. “Pewke”? Yes, that’s an obsolete spelling of puke which is an obsolete term that referred to a type of woolen cloth (there is a reference from 1499 to someone making “a longe gowne of pewke,” which today would be an unfortunate après-party euphemism) as well as the color of that cloth (a bluish black, by all accounts). And, actually, there is no connection between that word puke and what we typically mean today.

But there really is no need to bring up puke….

Anyway, back to orange. The word is somewhat infamous in that there is said to be no word that rhymes with it, although some have tried to force a rhyme, most notably Tom Lehrer:

Eating an orange

While making love

Makes for bizarre enj-

oyment thereof

And Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel wrote the song “Oranges Poranges” (“oranges poranges, who says? there ain’t no rhyme for oranges!”) for Sid and Marty Krofft’s TV show H.R. Pufnstuf. There is a hill in Wales called The Blorenge, but I expect that’s pretty difficult to work into a song or poem.

You may also have noticed, going back through the etymological history of the word, that somewhere along the line the word norange, lost an “n.” This is because in French it would have been called un norange, and in the same way that in English “a norange” could easily become “an orange” that’s pretty much what happened to our fruit as it made its way up through Europe. (Orange trees were originally native to Southeast Asia—northeastern India and southern China specifically—and oranges were brought to Europe by Arabs through North Africa and then Sicily, where they migrated north, arriving in Britain around the 14th century.)

Indeed, the letter “n” comes and goes rather arbitrarily, especially in English. Notice how someone who sends or relays a message is suddenly a messenger (the original word messager gained an “n” around 1300) and someone who books passage is mysteriously a passenger (passager gained its “n” around the 15th century). Why? No one really knows, except that people seemed to prefer to pronounce those words that way. (I do not know if Henry Kissinger had an ancestor named Kissiger.)

In some cases, it’s easy to figure out the origin of the “parasitic n.” A newt was originally an ewt, and a nickname was originally an ekename (“an additional name”). The letter can vanish as abruptly as it arrived. An apron was originally a napron (basically a small table cloth, with the same root as napkin), and for baseball fans, an umpire comes from a noumper, from the Old French nonper (“not even,” as in an odd number). The idea was that a noumper was a third person to settle differences between two parties.

Sometimes letter migrations can get fairly complicated. Take the phrase humble pie. The Middle English word numbles (“edible inner parts of an animal”) became umbles, and umble pie was an actual dish made from organ meat (it was considered a low-class food). The word humble existed at the time—etymologically unrelated to umbles—although the “h” was not pronounced. “To eat humble pie,” then, was coined essentially as a pun to humble oneself by eating umble pie.

If you don’t like humble pie (or umble pie), you might prefer to eat crow. No one is entirely certain where that phrase came from, but one of the OED’s definitions of crow is “intestine or mesentery of an animal”—and thus the meaning could be virtually the same as “humble pie.” Or it could be that, since crows are scavengers feeding on carrion, eating them was perceived as being rather disgusting, and thus being forced to eat one would be a form of humiliation.

Oh, and about the word pie. There is some evidence that it derives, at least in part, from magpie, a bird that tends to collect miscellaneous objects. By the way, it is also believed that the term pie fonts—aka pi fonts—also comes from the magpie, as pi font was originally 16th-century printer’s slang for random bits of type jumbled together.

One kind of pie that is pretty agreeable to a fair number of people this time of year is pumpkin pie. Pumpkin has a pretty boring etymology (Middle French pompon for melon), but pumpkins are orange. And, in fact, it is entirely possible that, had pumpkins been more popular in Europe than oranges, we would be using the word pumpkin instead of orange to refer to that color. So the TV series could indeed have been called, in an alternate reality, Pumpkin Is the New Black. And Pantone’s Hexachrome system would refer to CMYK plus green and pumpkin. Ah, what might have been.



Sam Dean, “The Etymology of the Orange,” Bon Appetit, February 28, 2013,

John Lawler, “The Data Fetishist’s Guide to Rime Coherence,” Style 40 (1&2), 2006.

“Messenger,” “Napkin,” “Newt,” “Nickname,” “Passenger,” “Pie,” “Umpire,” Online Etymology Dictionary,

“Orange,” Online Etymology Dictionary,

“Orange,” Oxford English Dictionary,

“Puke,” Oxford English Dictionary, via Word Finder,

“Eating crow,” Wikipedia, last modified on October 25, 2015, retrieved on October 27, 2015,

“Humble Pie,” Wikipedia, last modified on September 15, 2015, retrieved on October 27, 2015,

“Orange (colour),” Wikipedia, last modified on October 27, 2015, retrieved on October 27, 2015,

“Orange (word),” Wikipedia, last modified on September 16, 2015, retrieved on October 27, 2015,

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