Red heads don’t really have “red” hair. Same with red foxes and red deer. Even Mars, which we call the red planet, is more of an orange color in the majority of photos. So why are they called red?
Early Names for the Color
Prior to the naming of orange, orange things still had to sometimes be described in more detail than “red”. So in Old English, there was ġeolurēad. Literally, yellow-red. But it wasn’t a particularly popular color descriptor. A few other names were attempted for these colors, but none really stuck. Saffron, another food inspired shade, was first recorded as a color word in 1200. Citrine, a precious stone, was first used as a color word in 1386.
Crog, a yellow-ish orange similar to saffron, was a thing for a while. Tawny was an option as well, especially for brown-ish oranges. But none of these dominated, and in the 1390s, Chaucer still used “His colour was a light tawny, betwixt yellow and red,” to describe a fox.
Oranges, the Fruit
When naranga (an old name for bitter oranges) started to be imported into Europe, the name for them shifted. Languages with articles ending in the letter ‘n’ don’t create a clear distinction between the end of an article and the beginning of the next word.
So articles like ‘an’ in English, or ‘un’ in French blur with the word, and the ‘n’ in naranga gets dropped. This is called juncture loss. This led to words like ‘arancia’ in Italian and ‘arange’ in Old English, which eventually evolved into the word as we know it today.
Sweet oranges didn’t spread around Europe until the late 1400s. But then they quickly became popular with the upper class, and they also perfectly exemplified that one color: betwixt yellow and red.
The first recorded use of “orange” as a color word occurred after sweet oranges became well-known, in 1512. But it didn’t become a common word for quite some time. William Shakespeare, in the mid 1590s, uses the word “orange” in both the context of the fruit and the color. In the color usage though, he usually pairs it with “tawny”. It’s almost as if he was hesitant about using the word in that way.
By the late 1660s, when Isaac Newton began experimenting with light, “orange” had been well-established as a word. So when he outlined the colors of the light spectrum as shown through a prism, orange was one of them. From there, orange was pretty undeniable as one of the main basic colors.
The Color Orange or the Fruit Orange
Obviously the color orange has existed for an incredibly long time. But when it comes to etymology, the fruit comes first.