- Orange enters English in the 14th-c. from the French orenge (pomme d’orenge) via Spanish naranja, Portuguese laranja, Italian narancia
- The Romance forms of orange ultimately go back to Arabic naranj, Persian narang, Sanskrit naranga; may be rooted in Tamil (South India) naru, for fragrant
- Also growing in bunches, grapefruit is indebted to grape, from French graper (gather), from Germanic root *krappon (hook, used to so gather)
Last February, my fiancée and I travelled to Istanbul. Winding through its dense and storied streets, we stopped often to sample foods from street vendors and stalls, such as the savory pastry of börek, sesame-ringed simit, or cups of golden-hued çay, the tea steaming from its tulip-shaped glass.
On one afternoon outing, after my wanderings led us—yet again—through that bustling center of Old Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar, we took a seat a tiny table at a tinier stall just at the market’s perimeter. For refreshment, I stuck with çay, happily substituting my coffee addiction with Turkey’s go-to beverage. (No native is really Turkish coffee in Istanbul.) My fiancée, however, went for something new: freshly squeeze pomegranate juice.
In my traveller’s Turkish, always received warmly, I ordered: “Lütfen bir çay ve bir nar istiyorum.” Literally, please one tea and one pomegranate (juice) I would like.
Turkish is what is called an agglutinative language. That means it forms complex words by “gluing together” individual morphemes. And a morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit in a language.
So, in English, cats has two morphemes: cat and s, which marks the plural. Other languages like Turkish glue a lot more morphemes together than English does. Take istiyorum: in one word, it combines morphemes for verb tense, aspect, person, and number to communicate “I want,” “I am wanting,” or “I would like.”
If I wanted to negate that statement in English, I would say, “I do not want.” I need two new morphemes, in this case two whole words, and I place them in the right order in the expression. But a Turkish person would add a morpheme right smack dab in the middle of the whole word: istemiyorum. It gets really complicated, really fast. And it’s a totally different way of doings things. Cool, right?
Anyways, it’s the Turkish nouns in my drink order that interest me here. Yes, the Turkish çay is related to chai, pronounced the same and ultimately from the Chinese. But I didn’t expect that nar would be related to orange. Though thousands of miles away, with the humble nar I was in fact much closer to home than imagined.
As lexicographer Eric Partridge put its, “The descent of orange is long, yet clear.” Well, “clear” is his opinion.
In the 14th-century, Middle English picks up orange (and at some point the fruit itself?) from the French orenge (now orange). The French occurred in the phrase pomme d’orenge, taken from a similar Medieval Latin construction. French picked up pomme from Latin’s pomus, which meant fruit and later apple. (Cf. the Dutch oranjeappel and the Scots appil orange. Also consider French’s pomme de terre, earth-apple, for potato.)
The Latin was taken from the Italian narancia (now arancia), and the form of the word travelled like all the sailors who brought the fruit over from Asia.
Here is a study in some orange (cognates):
- Provençal, auranja
- Catalan, taronja
- Spanish, naranja
- Portuguese, laranja
- Italian, narancia/arancia/melarancia
- Rumanian, naranta
- Greek, nerantzi
The Spanish naranja seems to be the point of diffusion from orange’s oldest crop: the Arabic naranj, Persian narang, and the Sanskrit naranga (orange tree).
The Sanskrit, in turn, is probably related to terms in two of that subcontinent’s hundreds of other tongues: Tamil’s naram/naru (which Partridge glosses as fragrant) and Tulu’s narengi. It’s not every day one gets to talk about Tamil or Tulu. Both are the in the Dravidian family, a non-Indo-European language primarily spoken in Southern India and Northern Sri Lanka.
At this point, you’re probably seeing nar as a common thread. In Persian, nar named the pomegranate, which fruit and term spread to the Turkic peoples. Hence, a freshly squeezed cup of nar in Istanbul. It was delicious, too.
So, what happened to the n and the a in English’s orange?
The o- may have been influenced by the southern French city of Orange (later tied up in Dutch royalty and Irish Protestantism). Or or, the French for gold, due to the fruit’s color, from the Latin aurum.
And the n? Perhaps due to something called misdivision, or metanalysis, which happens when words are broken down at the wrong boundary. A few examples illustrate:
- An apron? Originally, a napron.
- A newt? An ewte.
- Nickname? First, an eke name, with eke meaning also or additional.
- An umpire? More like a noumpre (from French for odd number).
- And how about one where there is no definite article (a, an)? Tawdry originally comes from St. Audry’s lace.
At some point, the definite articles—as in un naranja, une narange, or una narancia— could have promoted the loss of the initial n. Say them out loud and it’s easy to be convinced.
And here’s just a little more zest in the life of orange from the Online Etymology Dictionary:
The tree’s original range probably was northern India. The Persian orange, grown widely in southern Europe after its introduction in Italy 11c., was bitter; sweet oranges were brought to Europe 15c. from India by Portuguese traders and quickly displaced the bitter variety, but only Modern Greek still seems to distinguish the bitter (nerantzi) from the sweet (portokali “Portuguese”) orange. Portuguese, Spanish, Arab, and Dutch sailors planted citrus trees along trade routes to prevent scurvy. On his second voyage in 1493, Christopher Columbus brought the seeds of oranges, lemons and citrons to Haiti and the Caribbean. Introduced in Florida (along with lemons) in 1513 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Introduced to Hawaii 1792.
How do you like them apple-oranges?
I like grapefruit. No sugar, too. I buy it. Always pumped for a healthy, colorful, and tart start to the day. But I never get around to it. The apples and bananas are the first to go. Then oranges. Then the pitted fruits and berries. My fruit bowl is left not-so-empty with a grapefruit or two.
As Socrates surely implied, the unreflected grapefruit is not worth eating. So, what is up with the grape in grapefruit, anyways? And what, if anything, do grapes and grapefruit have in common?
Their etymology, that’s what. Grapefruit, called so in 1814 and cousin to the shaddock or pomelo, grows, apparently, like grapes, in bunches and clusters. The Old French grape, referring both the bunch and the individual grape berries, was most likely formed on graper, which meant gather, seize, or catch with a hook. This verb, in turn, probably comes from the Germanic root *krappon, meaning hook. Cramp and crampon are related, as is grapple, which perfectly describes my relationship to the fruit. The tool came to name the action, and the action came to name the result.
Who says you can’t compare apples and oranges—and grapefruits and grapes?