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Why Do We Call People Redheads Instead of Orangeheads?

Gretchen McCulloch from the All Things Linguistic blog investigates why we call people redheads instead of orangeheads.

By
Gretchen McCulloch, read by Mignon Fogarty,
December 5, 2013
Episode #392

Page 1 of 2

redhead or orangehead

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One of the oft-cited illogical characteristics of the English language is why we say "redhead" to describe people who look like Elizabeth the First, Christina Hendricks, or Anne of Green Gables. 

Any logical comparison of colors would conclude that their hair is much closer in color to orange things like carrots and pumpkins than to red things like strawberries and tomatoes. 

So why don't we say "orangehead" instead of “redhead”? Etymology to the rescue! 

Red Is Usually One of the First Colors to Get a Name

According to Etymonline, the word red in English dates straight back to the Proto-Indo-European word reudh, via the Proto-Germanic word rauthaz, and is also related to words like ruddy, rufus, and the surname Reid. The fact that the word for “red” is so old is consistent with what we know about color terms cross-linguistically: after black and white, red is generally the next earliest color term that a language is likely to have.  

Orange, on the other hand, only appears in English after the arrival of the fruits in England. According to Etymonline again, the term for the fruit shows up around 1300 A.D from Italian arancia, via Arabic naranj, and traces back to Sanskrit naranga-s  meaning "orange tree," but orange doesn't start being used in English for the color until the 1540s, approximately two hundred years later.

What about redhead? It started being said in the mid-1200s, about a hundred years before English speakers were even talking about oranges, let alone the color. 

We don't say “orangehead” because when the term was coined, English didn't differentiate between red and orange. This is kind of like the way today we don't have different terms for light blue and dark blue, even though other languages, like Russian, do have separate words for them.

Why Don't We Call the Color "Pumpkin" or "Carrot"?

So the next question is, why did it take until the arrival of oranges in England for people to have a handy orange object to name the color after? Surely they could have named this color "pumpkin" or "carrot" instead, right? 

Actually, no. 

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