On Monday I was given a rather splendid-looking orange by my colleague Mark, who had just returned from Greece that morning on an early flight, and had
plucked a couple of oranges from a tree before departing. As you do.
The orange which Mark brought me is like a piece of another world, as all oranges would have been for many centuries. We are inured to their strangeness now. There was a time when the colour of orange things, in English, had no name. The fruit came to the knowledge of the English relatively late, and it is from the fruit that we name the colour, so in a pre-orange (fruit) world, what did we call an orange thing?
Before I answer that question, I should point out that an orange was originally a norange – hence the Spanish naranja (from the Arabic, which had it from the Persian, which had it from the Sanskrit – naranga – which had it, probably, from the Dravidian. I'm having this from Wikipedia, if that wasn't obvious). A norange can easily become an orange in a predominantly oral culture through a process known to linguists as juncture loss or false splitting. (other examples of false splitting being a lute, from the arabic al’ud, the adder, formerly a naddre, the apron, formerly a napron, and a nickname, formerly an ekename – eke being an antique word for also).
What then was an orange thing before there were oranges (or noranges)? Either they were simply assimilated, by a sort of process of false colour-splitting, to red (a red deer, or a robin redbreast), or they were (in Anglo-Saxon) yellow-red (ġeolurēad) or yellow-saffron (ġeolucrog) (what was said before there was saffron, or for that matter red, is not recorded).
So there we go. The colour-spectrum is of great interest to students of linguistics, as evidencing the power of language to split the world by naming it (hence Welsh speakers, those false-splitters, divide the grey-green bit of the spectrum along different lines from English speakers), and false-splitting generally is of great interest to pedants and bores; so perhaps I have said enough, and will content myself with admiring the strange object on my desk.