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.

Gretchen McCulloch, Writing for
3-minute read
Episode #392


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. 

Pumpkins were first grown in North America, which means that Europeans had never heard of them until there started to be lots of contact between these two continents. So that would be 1492 at the very earliest, but Columbus was traveling mostly between the Caribbean, where there aren’t a lot of pumpkins, and Spain, where there isn’t a lot of English. So the word pumpkin doesn't show up in English until the 1640s (There is a related term, pumpion, which dates from the 1540s and was used for both melons and pumpkins, but these come in several colors so they’re probably not good sources for unambiguous color terms). 

This also explains why melon wasn't chosen, since there are several colors of melon. Cantaloupe isn't used in English until 1739, which is much too late.

purple carrotsSo what about carrot? This word is pretty old, coming into English in the 1530s from the Greek karoton via Latin carota. But there are two problems: first, oranges as a food had been around English-speakers for about 200 years already, and second, the earliest carrots were in fact, not orange. They were purple. 

You can actually still find purple carrots (and purple beans and purple potatoes) at many farmers' markets today, but at the time when English-speakers started eating them, purple carrots were totally normal, and red and yellow carrots weren’t that surprising either. 

Orange carrots didn’t start getting common until the Dutch began cultivating them in the 1600s. One rumor has it that this was in honor of William of Orange, but at any rate, when people started saying "orange" for the color in the 1540s, carrots were still this weird purple vegetable and pumpkins and melons were still the same category of food. So orange seemed like the best option. 


However, there's another old food term that managed to do quite well for itself as a pretty illogical hair color name….ginger! The food term dates from the mid-fourteenth century via Medieval Latin gingiber, which is from Greek zingiberis and ultimately from Sanskrit. 

But ginger root is goldy-yellow, and doesn’t look at all like the hair of Pippi Longstocking or Ron Weasley. Why aren’t we using ginger to mean "blonde"? Speculations range from the fiery tempers associated with redheads to the bright red-pink color of the ginger plant, but there are some questions that etymology cannot answer. Sorry!

This article originally appeared on All Things Linguistic, a blog by Gretchen McCulloch.

The podcast was read by Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl and the creator of the game Grammar Pop

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Gretchen McCulloch, Writing for Grammar Girl

Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist and author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. She is the Resident Linguist at Wired and the co-creator of Lingthusiasm, a podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics. She lives in Montreal, but also on the internet.