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Why Do We Call People With Orange Hair Redheads?

Is Karren Gillan still a redhead, what with the shaved head and all?

Amy Pond

Amy Pond is a “redhead” even though her hair is orange — why? This is true of all natural redheads, really, but since the explanation has quite a bit to do with history and early civilizations, we figured who better than a time-traveling ginger to use as an example. To the TARDIS, everyone! It’s time for learning!

The short answer is that “redhead” was coined as a term long before the “orange” came around, but there’s more to it than that. Particularly, why did it take so long for the word “orange” to show up in the English language compared to red? Red, it turns out, is typically the first color after white and black to get a name in many languages. We’re willing to bet blood has something to do with that. If you’re interested, WNYC’s Radiolab put out an hour long podcast all about how people see colors, which you can check out here.

Anyway, “orange” has been around to describe the fruit of the same name since the 1300’s, but didn’t start being used to describe the color as separate from red until the 1540’s, and people simply needed a word to describe redheads before that. By the time “orange” did come into use, everyone was already saying “redheads” to describe people with orange hair.

We learned the etymology of “redhead” and “orange” from a recent episode of the Grammar Girl podcast. If you’re looking for short, entertaining explanations of interesting grammar questions, then this is definitely a podcast you should have on your radar. Grammar Girl herself, Mignon Fogerty is the host and voice of the show, but this particular episode was written by guest contributor Gretchen McCulloch from the blog.

The Grammar Girl site appears to be down at the moment, but you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes, Stitcher, and probably anywhere else you subscribe to podcasts.

(via Grammar Girl, image via Doctor Who)

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Glen is a comedian, writer, husband, and father. He won his third-grade science fair and is a former preschool science teacher, which is a real job.