It is in the chronicles of old that I discovered the name the Arabs once gave to this fruit: al-naranj. The word illustrates better than any other how their civilization played the role of cultural go-between. It came to Arabic from Persian, which itself borrowed it from Sanskrit. It originally denoted the bitter orange, introduced to Europe around the 11th Century.
When 15th-Century Portuguese navigators brought back from Asia the sweet varieties such as the ones we eat today, the Arabs called the new fruit bortuqal, ‘Portugal’; we find the same name given in Turkish, Georgian and Bulgarian as well as a number of other languages, including, apparently, Persian. Certain sources say that the common name for this fruit in Iran is now portoghal, but my old French-Persian ‘Dictionnaire Khayyam’, published fifty or so years ago, gives only narang. Possibly both terms co-exist in Iran as they do in Greece, where the sweet orange is called portokali and the bitter variety nerantzi.
Naranja, laranja, taronja, arancia
Most European languages have kept the old word, but in different forms. Some have done away with the initial ‘n’; others have maintained it; yet others have switched the consonant with another.
In French, the old word was norenge. Since it was often preceded by the indefinite article une — which ends with a silent e — the two words were therefore pronounced ‘unnorenge‘. One of the two n’s became superfluous and eventually disappeared. Some think that this progression was smoothed by the fact that the new word began with or, French for ‘gold’, a syllable made all the more apt given that the colour of the ripened fruit is a little like that of the precious metal. A similar evolution occurred in Italian, in which the word began as narancia and became arancia. As for the English word, it appears to have been taken as is from French.1
On the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish has retained the initial n. In una naranja, the two ‘na’ syllables were distinct and have never joined. The Portuguese say laranja, as do the Basques; Galicians say laranxa — the initial ‘l’ in these three languages probably a trace of the definite article in Arabic in al-naranj. The Catalans, however, say taronja.
Elsewhere in Europe, the name of the orange has followed a different route. The Germanic languages refer to the fruit’s country of origin, calling it a ‘China apple’ — the Germans have apfelsin, the Dutch sinaasappel, the Swedes apelsin, and so on.2 Russian has taken the same route, with apelsin.3
Before it was used to denote a particular fruit, the words ‘apple’, ‘pomme’ and ‘apfel’ were generic terms used to denote all fruit apart from berries. In French, we still say pommes de terre4 for potatoes, and pommes de pin5 for pine cones; French speakers once called the tomato a pomme d’or6, an idea that persists in the Italian word pomodoro. Both terms exist in Arabic; Arabic-speakers in certain countries, such as Lebanon, still talk about a ‘golden apple’ in the term banadoura; in others, notably Egypt, the tomato is known as a tamatem…
But I’ll revisit some of these words in a future post.
- AUTHOR’S NOTE: For more on this point and many others, see the excellent Online Etymology Dictionary, a goldmine that I have just discovered. [↩]
- AUTHOR’S NOTE: We find this provenance again in the fruit’s scientific name, citrus sinicus. [↩]
- AUTHOR’S NOTE: In spoken Algerian, the orange is called a tchina, which also seems to evoke its Chinese origin. We see the same root in the name for another variety of citrus fruit — the mandarin. [↩]
- TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Literally, ‘earth apple’, but really a ‘potato’. [↩]
- TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Literally, ‘pine (tree) apple’, but really a ‘pinecone’. [↩]
- TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Literally, ‘gold(en) apple’, but really a ‘tomato’. [↩]