Thursday, January 17, 2008


Now with photos!

And so we go from the oldest color term in our language, to the youngest. A quick word of explanation: All the colors of the spectrum have of course always existed, and the human eye has always (near as we can tell) been able to see them. What I'm talking about are the WORDS we use to describe those colors, and how we separate the spectrum into different colors. After all, the spectrum is a constant shift from red to blue; we could just as easily call it red, yellow, and blue, or the current system in color wheels, red, red-orange, orange, orange-yellow, yellow, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, blue-violet, purple, and violet-red. Or we could break it down into a thousand different color names (magenta, turquoise, cerise, cyan...) or we could just call it 'rainbow'. How we divvy up the spectrum is a cultural thing that varies widely around the world. I'm dealing with western civ and the English language because, duh, that's the only system I know. If anyone else wants to weigh in on how THEIR cultures do this, please feel free. I'd love to know.

So. Orange. The word, in English, has only been around since 1300-1500 CE, depending on what source you look at. The name of the color - and apparently the concept of orange as it's own color needing it's own name came from oranges - the fruit, which were brought back to Europe during the Crusades. Before that, the orange part of the spectrum was described with various terms for yellow and red together, one of them being 'geoluhread', or gold-red in Old English.

Orange dyes, of course, existed all along. They were probably referred to as shades of red, yellow or brown, though.

As with red, the earliest orange colorant was most likely ochre and other iron oxides. (For more on that, go back to Red, if you haven't read it already.)

One of the most common orange vegetable dyes in Eurasia, for most of it's history, was saffron. (Yes, the same as the spice.) Originally native to SW Asia, it was cultivated widely around the Mediterranean. Saffron is a flower that grows from a bulb, similar to and related to the iris. The part that's used as a spice and a dye is the stigma, the thready reproductive organs inside the flower. Each flower has three stigmas. It takes up to seventy-five thousand flowers to produce one pound of saffron 'threads'. In Italy and Spain, in areas that traditionally grew saffron, there are harvest festivals that include saffron-picking races. Because of the work involved to produce a useful amount of saffron, it has always been expensive; even now with modern production methods it is the most expensive spice in the world. Saffron has been used as a dye back into antiquity, all over Asia and Europe. In India and Asia, it was often used as an offering to the gods, either as a dye for religious textiles, offerings, or even in buckets of dye, sloshed over the outside of the temple. In Europe it was used as a medicine, spice, and fabric dye for the rich. I was told (many years ago, while studying literature), that the Greeks used saffron as a medicine for PMS, and because of that, the saffron orange color was considered feminine, and was the Greek version of pink (I would not swear to the truth of that; I can't find any info to support it - but I WAS told that).

Onion skins can also be used to dye fabric (and easter eggs) orange. Most of the vegetable dyes discussed in the red section, especially madder and brazilwood, can also be used to make orange.

Henna, native to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, was occasionally used as a dye as well as it's more common use as a cosmetic. It only dyes protein fibers, and must be used with an acid, even when dyeing hair or skin with it (traditionally lemon juice was used as the acid). Use goes back to the Bronze age, at least. It's said that when Cleopatra sailed on the Nile, the ship's sails were dipped in henna first; it's unclear whether it was for the scent (henna is also used as a perfume) or the color.

And this brings us to fluorescent colors, of which orange is one of the earliest and most used. They 'work' in a very interesting way. All fluorescent or 'neon' colors contain small amounts of sodium fluorescine or rhodamine. Those two chemicals absorb light in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum (which we do not normally see with the naked eye) and re-emit it in various portions of the visible spectrum. The added 'light' registers in the eye and brain as something extra, and our brain reads it as fluorescent.

In Western culture, orange hasn't been terribly popular until recently. The current popularity is considered nothing more than a result of color overload; we've gotten so used to all the other colors, we're turning to orange as something new. Or so the theory goes.


Roz said...

I'm loving this. You should charge for your "lectures."

Amy Lane said...

Seriously, dude--I'm sending your 'articles' to my science department--and now, the art department. I'm really enjoying them! (You should get an honorary degree in something for this...just print out your blog archives and jump up and down shouting 'see!!!!! and unlike Cassie Edwards, I cited my sources, dammit!)

Ginger_nut said...

Hi Julie -

A bit like Playboy, I'm a long time reader, first time commentor :)

I am finding your colour posts very interesting, and this one is quite timely as I am in Thailand and am seeing buddhist monks in their saffron coloured robes on a daily basis. Would you think that these items would have been dyed with actual saffron (ie - is it included with religious textiles?) or would some less scarce dye have been used? It appears that nowadays they use several different dyes because they vary from vibrant glow-in-the-dark 80s orange to very subdued fade-into-the-background dusky hues.

Of course, I would ask them, but out of respect for the culture, it wouldn't do for a female to approach a monk. Perhaps I can find a book about it when I get back to Krung-threp (Bangkok)

Sorry for the essay, but had to show some proper apreciation for a change :)

Louiz said...

The newness of "orange" is presuambly why red hair is called that... and did you know carrots were not orange until quite recently?

Caroline / purplish said...

In Swedish the old terms for orange are "gulröd" (very close to the OE word you posted) which means yellow-red or "brandgul" which means fire-yellow.

And in response to louiz's comment the Danish word for carrot is "gulerod" - "yellow root".

And concerning colours in different cultures, did you know that there is no separate word for green in Japanese? The word "aoi" translates to both blue and green. The word "midori" means greenery, but apart from that the only word for green (afaik) would be the loanword "guriin".

Donna Lee said...

Thank you for these Julie. I think I learned some of this in an art class long ago but had forgotten I'd known it. It's interesting to read it and makes me look at the colors around me a little differently.

historicstitcher said...

Yet another awesome post! Thanks, Julie!

And you're giving me ideas that might endanger the 50g of saffron I have sitting in my freezer - a gift a few years ago from a friend who traveled to Israel and Egypt...

Roxie said...

Pink is a fairly new word as well. In Denmark, I went to see a Peter Sellers movie titled, "The Light-red Panther."

I am just loving these essays. More! More!

Murrie said...

You do know we love this, right?


RobynR said...

Henna as a desirable scent? I can't even imagine. Generally I use henna (from to dye my hair and I despise the odour so much that I'll often wash my hair several times the first day or so after and then wear it in a ponytail until the lingering fragrance vanishes completely. That being said, one of these days, that innocent ounce or two of natural merino roving *is* going to take a dip in some left over henna . . . love that hue.

Carrie S. said...

I dye my hair with henna and I can't imagine why anyone would want ot use it as a perfume; it smells like grass clippings--or just grass, if you're of that persuasion. :)

Anyone who's of the gardening persuasion, BTW, the saffron crocus (Crocus sativa), is winter-hardy through Zone 7, and you can grow it outdoors in Zone 6 if you're willing to mulch for the winter. I don't know how many bulbs you'd need to get a useful amount of saffron, but they probably wouldn't take up too much real estate...

NeedleTart said...

My piano teacher was told to dye her hair with henna when she was performing in New York. She had one streak of white hair in the front. It turned pink. She never dyed it again.
Henna? Perfume? Maybe they were starved for the smell of spring greens.