Saturday in the park with orange

I know I'm supposed to be thinking about saffron since my visit to "The Gates," Christo and Jeanne-Claude's installation in Central Park in New York.

But come on. The Gates were orange. Saffron, with all due respect, just doesn't hit people's buttons the way orange does.

The Gates were a great public moment for New York City, as tens of thousands of residents and visitors promenaded around them and through them. "Are they art, or are they just an event?" an artist friend asked me after I got back to Boston. An event, surely. Maybe choreography rather than just installation art: Christo and Jeanne-Claude enticed us all into their conception. The public interaction is inherent in the art.

For those to whom the project did not appeal, however, the critical point often seems to be how they feel about orange. Those who liked The Gates saw them as providing a burst of color at a dead point in the year. Those who didn't like them saw them as "prison-jumpsuit orange" or "traffic-cone orange." Does orange signal excitement and energy - or disruption (roadwork ahead!) and danger?

Orange is a political color, too. Last fall we had the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Protesters picked orange as a mellow, golden harvest-time hue. Since then, democrats elsewhere in the former Soviet Union have been using orange as their team color.

A thousand miles away, Lebanese rallying against Syria's occupation of their country have been widely described as following the Ukrainian model of peaceful protest. Their banners have been their own national colors of red and white, but headlines referring to the prospect of ousting the Syrians by asking "Orange in Beirut?" have been widely understood.

Orange has had a long political history in Western Europe, too, - and by extension in the New World. It's a color symbolism tied up in a particular kind of word play, in which a dynastic family name ("the House of Orange") happened to coincide with a new term for one of the basic seven of the rainbow.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation for orange, the fruit (spelled "orenge"), from 1044. Orange as the name of a color, however, didn't come onto the scene for several centuries after that. During the political upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, however, orange became a natural pick for a revolutionary color.

The OED goes on: "The accidental coincidence of this name ['Orange' as in 'House of'] with that of the fruit and colour ... made the wearing of orange ribbons, scarfs, cockades, orange-lilies, etc., a symbol of attachment to William III, and to the principles of the Revolution settlement of 1689, and led to their use by the Orange lodges and Orangemen."

When the princes of Orange were making names for themselves, the orange itself was a relatively recent arrival in Europe from India, where it is thought to have originated. In Spain (one of its stops along the way), the word for "orange" is "naranja." Somehow the initial "n" came unstuck as the word entered English; what should have been "a norange" was "an orange."

The United States has a number of truly citrus "oranges" - Orange County, California, as well as Orange County, Florida. But especially in the Northeast, "orange" as a town or street name is often an acknowledgment of Dutch or Irish heritage. The Orange Line on Boston's subway, for instance, is so called because it used to run along Washington Street - which used to be known as Orange Street. Subtle, no?

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