The word “orange” describes both a color and a fruit. Which one came first might be surprising.
“Orange” when used as the name of the fruit came before “orange” as a word to describe color. While the shade itself existed before the fruit, there was not a name in the English language for the color. Before the introduction of the fruit to English-speaking countries, the color was usually described as a shade of red or yellow.
In the early 16th century, Portuguese traders brought oranges from India to Europe. The Europeans had not seen the vibrant colored fruit before and didn’t have a name for it. The fruits were named “narancia” by Italians and “narange” by the French and were sometimes referred to as “golden apples” by English speakers.
“Orange” was first used in a phrase to describe shades of colors, including in a third-century text translated into English in 1576. It describes Alexander the Great’s servants as dressed in “orange colour velvet.” In 1578, a Latin-American dictionary defined “melites” as “a precious stone of orange color.” While orange represents the color of the objects, it needed the word “color” to follow it in order for the meaning to be clear.
In the mid-1590s, Shakespeare described a beard as “orange tawny,” one of the first instances of “orange” without the word “color” as part of the expression. Tawny is a brown color often used on its own. Orange was not yet a color, just a shade of brown.
In 1616, in an account describing varieties of tulips that can be grown, orange was used as a stand-alone color. When Isaac Newton performed his optical experiments on the color spectrum, he listed it as one of the seven basic colors. After almost half a century, orange was recognized as a color on its own.