Q&A: Which “orange” came first: the fruit or the colour?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're comparing oranges and oranges…

Q: Hey AWC, I’ve been thinking about “orange” lately.

A: You haven’t been trying to find things that rhyme with it, have you?

Q: Nope. It’s more of a chicken and egg thing really.

A: Well yes, chickens can be orange. And an egg’s yolk can also be orange.

Q: Please, this is no time for yolks.

A: Sorry. 

Q: I meant which meaning came first – the colour or the fruit?

A: Oooooh…

Q: To put it another way, was the fruit named as such BECAUSE it was orange in colour. Or was the colour named because it resembled the shade on the fruit.

A: It’s quite the citrus conundrum. But you'll be pleased to know that there is a clear answer. No need for too much navel gazing.

Q: Oh, I vitamin C what you did there – navel oranges. Nice.

A: Thank you.

Q: Okay, how about this one. When oranges speak to each other, what language do they use?

A: Oh, easy. Mandarin. 

Q: NO! It was a trick question. Oranges are inanimate and are not capable of speech.

A: Okay, hilarious. So let’s get back to which orange came first. 

Q: Yes please!

A: Drum roll please… It was originally the name of the FRUIT – getting its name in the late 1300s. The trees are thought to have originated in India and Persia, before making their way to southern Europe starting with Italy in the 11th century.

Q: So when did the colour get named?

A: That was actually much later – not until the 1510s. Up until then, the shade was likely to have been called “citrine” or “saffron” but was finally given its modern name thanks to it having “a reddish-yellow colour like that of a ripe orange.” 

Q: An orange by any other name would not taste as sweet…

A: Exactly. By the way, the fruit was obviously known by many other names in other languages. In Spanish it was “naranja” – almost a direct result of the Arabic “naranj”.

Q: I have one more question.

A: Sure.

Q: When did the phrase “comparing apples with oranges” come about?

A: Another good question. Of course, this phrase is usually used for comparing unrelated things – for example, “to compare jazz with rap music is like comparing apples with oranges”.

Q: R.I.P rapper Juice WRLD

A: It is also sometimes used to describe mismatched things. E.g. “They may have been twins but they were like apples and oranges.”

Q: And when did it start?

A: Well it appears the original form didn’t have oranges at all – with a proverb collection of 1670 including comparing “apples to oysters” instead!

Q: Actually, that would make more sense, because they are clearly unrelated. I’ve always thought that apples and oranges COULD be mistaken for each other in a dark alley.

A: Hanging out with a lot of fruit in dark alleys, are you?

Q: Not usually, but I sometimes succumb to pear pressure…

A: Haha, nice. And speaking of pears, the Spanish version of the phrase these days is “apples to pears”. 

Q: Stairs?

A: No, not the Cockney rhyming slang, “apples and pears”! Anyway, it seems that the modern form of comparing “apples to oranges” has only been used in English since the late 1880s.

A: Good to know! So, to recap, “orange” was the name of the fruit first, then the colour, right?

A: That’s right. Orange you glad you asked!

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