Peter Trudgill: A pithy history of the word orange

PUBLISHED: 18:00 07 October 2017

Oranges. Photo: Archant

Oranges. Photo: Archant

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PETER TRUDGILL traces the clockwork progress of the word ‘orange’ from southern India to northern Europe, and finds the odd detour.

The Democratic Unionist Party are having difficulty coming to terms with the official use in Ulster of Irish Gaelic, the indigenous Celtic language of Ireland. They also have a predilection for the colour orange.

Belfast is a long way from Andhra Pradesh, but the Indian subcontinent is where we need to start if we want to explain the attraction this colour has for certain Irish Protestants.

Oranges seem to have originated in southeast Asia. Our modern English word orange probably goes back very many centuries to one of the Dravidian languages of southern India like Tamil or Telugu: the modern Telugu word for orange is narinja. The ancient Dravidian word for this fruit eventually made its way north into the classical North Indian language Sanskrit as naranga. It then travelled on across the mountains of the Hindu Kush into Persian as narang, and from there it made its way into Arabic in the form of naranj.

Oranges were probably first introduced into Europe by Portuguese traders – the Greek word for orange is portokali – but English speakers most likely acquired the word for the fruit via the language of the maritime Venetians, who called it naranza, or the Spanish, where it was naranja. The word then travelled north into France, where it passed into French as orange: the initial n went missing as a result of une norange being re-interpreted by speakers as une orange.

Some time around 1400, orange came into the English language from French, having of course made the 5,000 mile journey from southern Asia to our island along with the fruit itself.

The first known usage of the word as the name of a colour dates to about 1600. Prior to the arrival of oranges on these shores, the colour was most often regarded as a kind of red: the ‘red’ breast of the European robin is often actually closer in hue to what English speakers these days would most likely label ‘orange’ in other contexts.

Orange is also the name of a town in the Vaucluse, in southern France. The town was the centre of a principality which in the 16th century passed into the ownership of a branch of the Dutch aristocratic dynasty, the House of Nassau. That led to this particular branch of the family being known as the House of Orange.

In the following century, the Dutch aristocrat William of Orange married Mary Stuart, the Protestant daughter of James II & VII, the Catholic King of England, Ireland and Scotland.

After James was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William and Mary became joint monarchs of the three kingdoms. James then attempted to regain his crown by raising an army in Ireland, but the victory of William’s army over James’ forces at the Battle of the Boyne in northern Ireland in 1690 established William as a champion of the Protestants.

This led to the name ‘Orangemen’ being used to refer to members of anti-Catholic groups in the north of Ireland who regarded him as a hero. They also came to adopt the colour orange as a symbol of their group membership; the tricolour flag of modern Ireland still has orange as one of its colours to represent the Protestant section of the island’s population.

But it is of course a complete and utter coincidence that the English-language word for the colour (and the fruit), and the name of the town in southern France, just happen to be identical.

And there is also an irony here which anti-Gaelic-language members of the DUP may not be aware of. It is true that the originally Dravidian word for the citrus fruit came into English via French.

But the original Latin word which the name of the French town of Orange descends from, Arausio, came into Latin from ancient Celtic, where it was the name of a Celtic water-god.

Chinese apple



The Low German word for ‘orange’ is Appelsien. High German speakers in northern Germany say Apfelsine (other German speakers have Orange).

The Low German word spread into Danish and Norwegian where it is applesin. In Icelandic it appears as appelsína, in Faroese appilsin, and Swedish apelsin. These words recognise the Asian origins of the fruit, meaning literally ‘apple (from) China’.

  • Peter Trudgill is professor emeritus of English linguistics at the Université de Fribourg/Universität Freiburg, Switzerland

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