The Peculiar Journey of “Orange”

Ben Zimmer in the Visual Thesaurus:

OrangesAs has become the custom for the LinguaFile series on Lexicon Valley, I presented the hosts Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield with a mystery word. This time, I had them guess the word that Eminem discussed in a 2010 interview on “60 Minutes” with Anderson Cooper: “People say that the word ___ doesn't rhyme with anything, and that kind of pisses me off, because I can think of a lot of things that rhyme with ___.” Bob figured out right away that it was orange, that eminently unrhymable word. Or not so unrhymable for Eminem, as he freestyles: “I put my orange four-inch door hinge in storage, and ate porridge with George.” I was amused to find out that Eminem's quasi-rhyming of orange has its roots in versifying going back to Walter William Skeat in an 1865 issue of Notes and Queries (not to mention a couple of dirty limericks collected by the great folklorist Gershon Legman).

The question that immediately came up had a less-than-obvious answer: Which came first, the color orange or the fruit orange? Many people are tempted to say the color, because it seems so basic to our vocabulary, but its “basicness” is relatively recent in the history of English. In the 1969 book Basic Color Terms, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay posited a kind of evolutionary sequence of terms in a language. The sequence starts with white and black, then proceeds to red, then green and yellow, then blue, then brown, and eventually to orange and purple (both unrhymable in English, as it turns out). The earliest evidence for the use of orange as a color term in English comes from 1512, several centuries after the other terms had been established. In Old English, you would need to say “yellow-red” (ġeolu-rēad) to describe something orange-colored.

More here.