Monday, December 2, 2013

Which Was Named First, the Color or the Fruit?

Sounds a bit like the famous “Which came first, the Chicken or the Egg” question, doesn’t it? Luckily, this question isn’t rhetorical. We have a definite answer.

You will be relieved to know that the fruit was named first. Technically, the tree was named first. The word we use for Oranges and their trees has truly ancient roots.

The earliest word we find for “Orange Tree” is “nāraṅga” from Sanskrit. This early language is more than four thousand years old, appearing in some of our most ancient stories, such as the Bhagavad Gita.

The Sanskrit language originated in the ancient lands we now know as India.

Hundreds of years later, it found its way to ancient Persia through trade and migration to become “nārang.”

At the height of its power, the Persian Empire spanned parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe.

The Persian empire rose and fell, the Arabic language became more widely used and orange trees spread further and further. The Arabic word for the tree was almost unchanged from the Persian: "naranj."

Arabic speaking countries span the Middle East and Northern Africa.

After several millennia of growth and trade, the orange tree found its way to Spain. The Spanish adapted the name to the feminine “naranja.”

As the popularity of oranges then spread to France, Spain’s neighbor, the word “Orenge” appeared in Old French, a precursor to the Modern French word “d’orange.”

The Spanish language is heavily influenced by Arabic due to Spain's proximity to Northern Africa. 

The orange finally made its way into early English-speaking countries. For the first time, the definition shifted to describe the fruit instead of the tree itself. The fruit and it's name rose in popularity, and was widely being accepted as a great gift.

As for the color, while the word was introduced in late Middle-English during the late 1300’s to early 1400’s, there isn’t any evidence of “orange” used to describe color until the mid 1500’s. English speakers until then preferred more descriptive terms, such as “yellow-red.”

Lined up, the history seems much more evident, almost inevitable.

Sanskrit Persian Arabic Spanish French English
nāraṅga nārang nāranj naranja orenge orange

When you pronounce these words out loud, you get a real sense of how history shapes and forms the languages we speak today.

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