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Word Nerd: Orange you glad it’s not called red?

Dedicated readers of the Word Nerd column might remember that five years ago I explained that, lexicographically, at least, there is no debate that the egg preceded the chicken. It arrived in the English language in the 9th century, whereas chicken only made its debut a century later. Today I will address the equally weighty conundrum of whether the colour orange or the fruit orange deserves the honour of being first.

Whereas the earliest citation of orange the fruit is from the beginning of the 15th century, the colour orange only appears more than 100 years later. Actually, there was no word for the colour orange in Old English and a castle decorator would have had to say geolu-read, “yellow-red” to describe a throne that was orange-coloured.

The orange has enjoyed an exotic etymological odyssey over the millennia. Around 2,500 years ago, the orange made a trip to India from southern China. A Sanskrit medical text describes the narangah, valued for its curative powers. It was a bitter orange, often now referred to as a Seville orange, and the word probably derives from one of the Dravidian languages of southern India, such as Malayalam or Tamil, where the term naru meant fragrant. Its journey, however, was just on its first leg because from India it travelled to Persia, where it was rendered as narang, and to Arabia, where it was called naranj. In the Middle Ages, Muslim merchants brought this bitter type of orange to Sicily and before long it was available throughout Europe. The sweet variety (sometimes called a China orange) that we associate with this fruit reached Europe 50 years later when Portuguese sailors imported it from India. Sweet oranges were considered a luxury and, until the middle of the 19th century, a delicacy mostly enjoyed by the aristocracy.

The Arabic word naranj was swallowed, in some cases, almost whole in several European languages; e.g., Byzantine Greek nerantzion, Italian narancia, and Spanish naranja. But the first letter “n” is often changed or removed entirely as in the Portuguese, the Italian arancio, arancia, or the late Latin aurantium. The loss of “n” may have occurred in a linguistic process called rebracketing that gave us English words uncle from nuncle and apron from napron. When preceded by an indefinite article such as a or an in English, or une or uno in Romance languages, the “n” can disappear. The opposite process can also occur; an “n” can be added to a word that didn’t originally have one. For example, a “newt” was originally in Middle English rendered as “an eute” and a “nickname” was an “eke name.” The Latin aurantium referenced before was probably also influenced by the word aurum, “gold”, since the fruit had a golden colour.

Although we see a progression towards the spelling of “orange” in both English and French, this form of the word is due to a coincidence. In the south of France, there once was a Roman city named Arausio. In Provençal, a dialect of the Romance language Occitan, the name of the city morphed into Aurenja which was becoming a centre of the orange trade and Aurenja was nearly identical to the Provençal fruit word auranja. From here it was a small step to orenge and finally orange for both the city and the fruit.

And orange (or should I say Orange) was not finished with its frequent travelling. In the 16th century, Philibert de Chalon of Orange was awarded a good chunk of the Netherlands by Emperor Charles V. When he died, his title passed to his German nephew, William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, who established the Dutch Republic and the House of Orange. As William organized Protestants in Holland to struggle against Catholic Spain for independence, both the name and the colour became associated with the Netherlands.

In a couple of generations, however, orangeness would travel once again. William’s grandson William III became King of England in the late 17th century. Because he defended the Protestant population of Ireland, the Protestants there became known as the Orangemen in his honour.

Incidentally, an orange’s colour has nothing to do with its ripeness. Oranges turn orange only as a result of cold weather, which breaks down a membrane protecting their green chlorophyll.

Howard’s book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2015.

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