The Vibrant Journey of ‘Orange’: A Word Origin Story

May 24, 2023

Few words in the vibrant English palette have a more fascinating backstory than “orange.” The term “orange” denotes more than just a common citrous fruit or a striking colour; it also tells an interesting story about the development of language, trade, and culture.

The word “orange” has its roots in the Old French “orenge,” which was borrowed from the Italian “arancia” (which is akin to the Spanish “naranja”). This was taken from the Persian word “nrang” and the Arabic word “nranj.” Strangely, none of these words mentions colour; they all refer to the fruit. However, as we follow the story’s linguistic roots back to Sanskrit, it becomes more intricate and fascinating.

An orange tree is referred to as a “nraga” in Sanskrit. This phrase was derived from the Dravidian terms “naru” and “naga,” both of which mean fragrant. The name may have arrived in Persia as a result of the considerable fruit and spice trade that existed between Persia and the Indian subcontinent. As a result, the word changed from “nraga” to “nrang,” indicating its Persian linguistic origins.

The Arab traders, well-known for their culture of commerce and extensive trading networks, entered the picture from this point on. As a result of their interactions with the Persians, they changed the word “nrang” to “nranj.” Then, through their wide trading lines that crossed the Mediterranean and extended into southern Europe, the Arab traders spread this phrase.

In the Middle Ages, Arab Spain, also known as Al-Andalus, served as the meeting place for European and Arabic cultures, resulting in a productive flow of ideas, commerce, and languages. It was at this point that the word “nranj” made the transition to the European tongues, becoming “naranja” in Spanish and “arancia” in Italian. The change from “nranj” to “arancia” is probably the result of a linguistic phenomena known as “metanalysis,” in which sounds are rearranged to produce new forms.

Old French then adopted the phrase as “orenge,” and by the 14th century, it had travelled to England and was known as “orenge” or “orange,” giving rise to the term we use today.

It’s interesting to note that the term “orange” was originally used to describe the fruit rather than the colour. Many people might be surprised to learn that there wasn’t a distinct phrase for the hue orange in English before the 16th century. It was frequently called “yellow-red,” “saffron,” or “red-yellow.” Only until the citrous fruit became widely available in Europe was the colour named after it. As a result, the history of global trade and cultural interchange is intimately related to the naming of the colour orange.

‘Orange’ is a word that is used frequently today. Everywhere you look, everything you eat, and everything you experience, it’s there. The word “orange” is a witness to a linguistic trip that spans continents and millennia, incorporating elements of trade, cultural interaction, and language evolution. This journey goes beyond its everyday usage.

In conclusion, the birth story of “orange” effectively illustrates the influence of linguistic globalisation and cultural interaction. It’s an enthralling story of how a tiny citrous fruit caused a significant shift in the English language, opening the door for a vivid and distinct colour term and, as a result, enhancing the range of colours in both our language and our lives.

Written by: Matt Grill

Matt Grill is the Director and Founder of BSharp Tech,  entrepreneur, software developer, digital marketer, photographer, geek, husband and father.