On the Origin of Orange

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Orange is my favorite color. My favorite color used to be red, but as I’ve got older, perhaps I’ve gone a bit yellow. Anyway, I like orange now.

But the weird thing about orange is that just about every other language out there calls orange by some variant of “naranja”. And that is pretty much just the word orange with an “n” slapped on the front. So why the difference? Where did the word come from? And which came first, the color or the fruit?

Looking back at the history of the word, we can see that our n-less version is newer than its forebears. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word orange dates back to the 13th century and comes from Old French. The French borrowed the word from Medieval Latin which got it from Arabic out of Persian all the way back to Sanskrit, where “naranga-s” meant an “orange tree”. Somewhere between the Latin and the French, a misunderstanding took place.

Let’s do an experiment to illustrate what happened. Say “an orange.” Now say “A norange”. It sounds the same, right? Well, someone along the line put the “n” on the wrong word and English just went with it.

So which is older, the color or the fruit? The fruit is older! We didn’t start using orange as a color word until the 1500’s, hundreds of years after the fruit was making its way around the globe. So did it exist before then? Probably. But what it was called other than orange, the world may never know.

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