Orange is a migrant word

by Michael Evans

When I was a small boy in Iraq in the 1950s fruit, in particular, loomed large in everyday life. Growing up in a bilingual family, we codeswitched between English and Arabic depending on who you were taking to. Most basic items in daily discourse existed in two sets of vocabulary. One fruit which featured in our daily lives was the orange; and the Arabic word we used to refer to it was (and continues to be) burtuqal.  Both words seemed ‘natural’ to me. They seemed to constitute an irrefutable and eternal verbal representation of the familiar refreshing fruit. Only there was a slight oddity: the word naranj (pronounced narinj) was also used to refer to a distant relative of the orange which looked less appealing and was used for cooking purposes. So in my mind the association could be dismissed as transient and tenuous. I was, of course, totally wrong in this view.

In fact, as all fruit etymologists will tell you, there is a long and complex migratory history of this fruit that can be traced across all our languages. The origin of the orange as fruit, like that of most things, is in China. It was developed as a hybrid between a mandarin and a pomelo. The fruit’s name has its origin in the Sanskrit word naranga. The fruit was discovered by the Arabs during the Muslim conquest of the Indian sub-continent and the word and fruit were later introduced in Spain by the Moors. Hence, the current Spanish word for orange: naranja.  The word then migrated to the French language, where it dropped the initial letter, possibly due to the awkwardness in pronouncing it with an indefinite article: une narange. My Larousse étymologique tells me that the initial ‘o’ was picked up from the name of the southern French town of Orange (which has a different derivation itself) through which the fruits passed on their way to the north. And from the French the word orange entered the English language in the fourteenth century, where it was also used for the first time as a colour word. The fruit introduced into the Iberian peninsula by the Moors, the Seville orange, was the bitter variety used for cooking or medicinal purposes. The sweet variety of the fruit was also discovered in India but this time by the Portuguese who as a trading nation introduced the fruit to different countries and different languages. Hence, for instance, bortoqal in Arabic and portokali in Greek. In other countries, including many north European languages, the reference is directly to China: orange = apple from China. For instance, Apfelsine in German and appelsin in Norwegian.  The word migration therefore completes a full circle: from east to west and back again.

So as a child I had no idea that I was using the name of a European country whenever I referred to oranges in Arabic. How would I have reacted to that knowledge? Would it have made me curious to learn more about Portugal and the links, both cultural and linguistic, with my own world? Would it have encouraged me to reflect more about the interconnectedness of languages and peoples? Perhaps, pace Saussure, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is not entirely arbitrary.

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