If we lived during the time of the Dutch West Indies Company, I would tell you that the
color that so captured me was the child of paprika and chocolate. The world no longer
swoons over spice willing to risk a sail beyond the end of the known. And yes, sadly rape
and pillage in its desperate greed. I had only to pass the window of the Muji store in
Manhattan’s Chelsea to discover this color in an umbrella.
What is it that grabbed me? Is it a vibration for which the color is only a foil? Or is it
something about the color itself lodged between memory and desire? This redder orange
infused with luxurious chocolate yielded a strangely jazzier yet muter tone than orange.
But if we are mapping out its terrain inevitably the orange relation comes up.
My “Muji Orange” is a distant relative of the neon orange of warning, as well as a
“tangerine streamlined baby” of sixties psychedelic abandon. Its crazy older paternal
cousin might be the Tang of astronauts or maybe the impossible orange of orange Crush
soda, or possibly even Blake’s Tyger burning bright, but its doting grandmother, is
definitely -- yes, most definitely -- a bittersweet French marmalade.
There is some mystery to orange. Orange is the only color in the seven-color spectrum
besides violet that originates as a noun, naming a particular thing. It refers to the berry
fruit of the orange tree, something very concrete and specific and not as abstract as the
other colors. Was the experience of the orange fruit so strong that it came to stand for the
The Old English Dictionary (OED) states that in Medieval Latin “the forms ‘arangia’,
‘arantia’ (Du Cange) whence ‘aurantia’ have “popular association with ‘aurum’ gold
from the colour.” Perhaps, the OED postulates, there is an etymological relationship
between the Old French “orenge” for “arauge” after “or” gold. The OED traces the “loss
of the initial ‘n' in French, English and Italian” as “ascribed to its absorption into the
indefinite article” resulting in “narange” absorbing “une" and “narancia” absorbing
Also from the OED we understand that the “native country of orange appears to have
been the northern frontier of India, where wild oranges are still found and the name may
have originated there.” In Late Sankrit the word for orange is “naranga;” in Hindi it is
“narangi" (OED, p. 2001)
Is “orange” related to the color of the fruit and/or to gold and the word “ore” (OED, p.
2001)? Are both these not only things, but also perhaps experiences of light? More
questions arise as we consider other correspondences that I call “rhymes and ricochets.”
In Persian the world for pomegranate is “nar” (OED, p.2001) which echoes the nar of
narange. Is this coincidence or relationship? The OED states it is not certain. Was the
“nar” / pomegranate the fateful fruit of the tree in the Garden of Eden myth? It is
possible because the pomegranate rather than the apple was the indigenous fruit. If the
pomegranate was the tree of knowledge, what was the knowledge that this golden ball
embodied? Might it have reflected a relationship of light to dark?
Is there anything other than coincidence to the resonance of the pomegranate which also
figures in the myth of Persephone who spends half her days in a descent into Hades when
the earth experiences the dark of winter and the other half above ground when the earth
experiences the light of spring – alternations or gradients of light and dark?
In one narrative color is dependent upon history and culture. The OED by definition is a
history of the English language, tracing the history and values of the western world with
its migrations and roots to the East. Today we think oranges are synonymous with the
warm climates of Florida and California. We often believe they are indigenous to North
America. However, they were planted by conquistador sailors who needed to create
supplies of vitamin C to take with them to guard against scurvy on their long sea
What is orange in cultures outside of the European? In other cultures closed off to our
own for so long by the migration and exchange of trade, say the Japanese or Chinese,
what is the etymology of the word orange? In Cantonese Chinese (but not in Mandarin),
the word for orange is related by sound to the word for gold. At New Year’s the
Mandarin orange embodies good wishes for prosperity. Are “gold” and “orange” a
conflation of all these color experiences of light?
What about other earlier societies? I wonder whether orange might “rhyme” with “fire.”
Fire had the life-giving power that made a large difference to a culture. If gold wasn’t the
commodity of value, it might make sense for the word for this experience to be “fire.”
Might gold be in part only an imitation of the light of fire?
These richoceting ruminations about gold and fire are vital, because it is precisely the
light of gold or fire that starts to go missing in “my” Muji Orange. It is that chocolate
brown in addition to the red of the orange that makes the color “step back” toward the
shade. Muji Orange recedes from the saturation and almost clear brilliance of an ordinary
orange that lags just behind the brilliance of yellow—whether the origin is the light of
sun, gold or fire.
Muji is a Japanese company and that perhaps contributes and infuses a measure of its
aesthetic into that of the west. The store’s name is related to “mujo” which evokes
“transience” in Japanese. I once heard about Japanese “killed colors.” These colors had a
little bit of death in them, fading from their original brilliance and glory. I couldn’t find
reference to them again but only to the rikuyu colors made from graying. In Muji Orange
the quality of orange steps away from the brilliance of the sunny orange into the shade,
holding a note of something that is darker. It is not a sinister dark to be avoided but one to
be savored like a fine chocolate.
Is my “Muji Orange” so beautiful to me because it captures the life of light and its
brilliance -- and the life of dark and its recession? To me “Muji Orange” is a kumquat
color par excellence. First like the sweet rind of the kumquat there is a “taste” of
brilliance and then immediately, almost simultaneously, just as the fruit yields a sour
taste, my Muji orange bursts with another very different moody, darker earthy “taste.”
Does Muji Orange with its paprika jazzy zest want to dance the tarantula? Is it death or
lack of light that gives my Muji color its kick?
I have questioned whether it was the vibration of the color that pulled me into the Chelsea
store -- the umbrella an extraneous element. But I wonder if the precise color of orange
might also be a “rhyme” with the function of “umbrella”? Are the form and the
vibration related in the poetry of memory?
Recently I recalled an earlier encounter with umbrellas. When I studied in Madrid in my
20s, I would often take the subway to go downtown to the Turner bookshop. I’d climb the
stairs of the appropriately named Sol subway stop that spilled out onto Jose Antonio,
emerging more often than not into a scorching sun.
On my way to the bookshop I would pass outside the window of a store that made
confectionaries of violets sold in white and purple miniature hatboxes. But my favorite
was the neighboring shop entirely devoted to umbrellas with a placard handwritten in a
swirly old-fashioned cursive script in the window that read “Manana llovera.” Both its
whimsy and its sales-minded craft were not lost in the English translation -- “tomorrow it
Last December, many years after my sunny Spanish sojourn, when to me it is now
irrefutable that night and day, death and life are folded into one another and that
Persephone must braid both dark and light -- the Muji Orange color caught my eye.
Manana llovera. Tomorrow it will rain. Dear Reader, I bought the umbrella.
Bibliographic Note The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Volume I, AO,
(Oxford University Press, United States, 1982).