In the latest installment of the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, I take on a word that every child knows, orange, and reveal its hidden history. It's a remarkably well-traveled word, and its travels tell us a great deal about the cultural history of many of the world's great civilizations. You can listen to the podcast here:
As has become the custom for the LinguaFile series on Lexicon Valley, I presented the hosts Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield with a mystery word. This time, I had them guess the word that Eminem discussed in a 2010 interview on "60 Minutes" with Anderson Cooper: "People say that the word ___ doesn't rhyme with anything, and that kind of pisses me off, because I can think of a lot of things that rhyme with ___." Bob figured out right away that it was orange, that eminently unrhymable word. Or not so unrhymable for Eminem, as he freestyles: "I put my orange four-inch door hinge in storage, and ate porridge with George." I was amused to find out that Eminem's quasi-rhyming of orange has its roots in versifying going back to Walter William Skeat in an 1865 issue of Notes and Queries (not to mention a couple of dirty limericks collected by the great folklorist Gershon Legman).
The question that immediately came up had a less-than-obvious answer: Which came first, the color orange or the fruit orange? Many people are tempted to say the color, because it seems so basic to our vocabulary, but its "basicness" is relatively recent in the history of English. In the 1969 book Basic Color Terms, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay posited a kind of evolutionary sequence of terms in a language. The sequence starts with white and black, then proceeds to red, then green and yellow, then blue, then brown, and eventually to orange and purple (both unrhymable in English, as it turns out). The earliest evidence for the use of orange as a color term in English comes from 1512, several centuries after the other terms had been established. In Old English, you would need to say "yellow-red" (ġeolu-rēad) to describe something orange-colored.
The name of the fruit did indeed come first, starting off about two millennia ago in India, where oranges had made their way from southern China. A Sanskrit medical text on Ayurveda (traditional medicine) described the naranga, likely derived from one of the Dravidian languages of southern India (Tamil, Telugu, or Malayalam) in which naru means "fragrant." From Sanskrit the word journeyed to Persian nārang and to Arabic nāranj, as Muslim merchants brought the fruit westward to the Mediterranean. The variety that Europeans first came into contact with was the bitter orange, prized for its medicinal value. The sweet variety that we are now familiar with did not make it to Europe until the 15th century, when Portuguese sailors brought it back from India.
The Arabic word nāranj was localized in various European languages, such as Spanish (naranja), Italian (narancia), and Byzantine Greek (nerantzion). But the initial n was sometimes changed, as in Portuguese laranja, or removed entirely, as in Italian arancio or late Latin aurantium. The loss of the n may have occurred by the same kind of "rebracketing" (as linguists call it) that gave us English words like adder (from nadder) and apron (from napperon). When preceded by an indefinite article (a/an in English, une or something similar in Romance languages), the initial n can get lost in the shuffle. Latin aurantium was further influenced by the word aurum, meaning "gold," since the fruit was golden in color.
The story takes an unusual turn when the word hit another Romance language, Occitan, as spoken in southern France, and particularly its major dialect of Provençal. There the word assumed its recognizable modern guise as orange. But it only got that way out of a remarkable coincidence. In the south of France, a Roman city was named Arausio, after a previous Celtic settlement on the site named after a water god. In Provençal, the name of the city became Aurenja, nearly the same as the Provençal word for the fruit, auranja. From there, the names for the city and fruit fell together, first as orenge and then as orange.
But the tale of orange was only just beginning, as this etymological coincidence became entrenched in European political history starting in the early 16th century. It was then that Philibert of Orange was awarded much of the Netherlands by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Since Philibert had no immediate heir, his title was passed down to his German nephew, William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, who founded the Dutch Republic and the House of Orange. William organized Dutch Protestants to fight for their independence against Catholic Spain in the Eighty Years' War, during which time both the name and the color orange became intimately associated with the Netherlands. (Orange-colored carrots, it is said, were first cultivated by patriotic Dutch farmers — but that story may be apocryphal.) The connection to the color is still a close one, as could be seen by the sea of orange-shirted fans cheering on the Dutch team in soccer's World Cup.
The grandson of William I of Orange, William III, would become King of England (ruling with his wife Mary) after the Catholic James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. William III was greeted by grateful Protestants who were arrayed in orange ribbons and even hoisted oranges. When William defended the Protestant population of Ireland, the Protestants there became known as Orangemen in his honor. The Protestant legacy was brought over to America as well, with many place names carrying on the Orange tradition. I spent the first several years of my life in South Orange, one of "the Oranges" of New Jersey (along with Orange, East Orange, and West Orange). That might explain why I feel such a kinship with the word.
For more on this fascinating cultural history, I'd recommend John McPhee's wonderful 1967 book titled simply Oranges. You'll never look at an orange the same way again.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer
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