The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Orange’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

What does the word orange literally mean? What is the derivation or origin of orange? The word’s etymology is interesting, and also more than a little mysterious, so let’s take a closer look at the origins of the word orange.

If you had to guess on the word’s origins, what would you say? Let’s make it easier. Which of the following four potential meanings of the word makes the most sense? Which of these might be the etymology of orange?

a) ‘The gold fruit’
b) ‘The odd ball’
c) ‘The ore of the gods’
d) ‘Fatal indigestion for elephants’

In fact, the origin of the word ‘orange’ is not only complex but, in fact, much disputed, and its emergence is shrouded in the folds of history.

One theory, however, is particularly interesting. The English ‘orange’, as with its cognates in other European languages – the French orange, the Spanish naranja, and the Italian arancia – derives not from the Latin for the fruit, which was citrus aurentium (literally meaning ‘gold citrus fruit’), but from the Arabic nāranj, which is probably in turn from the Persian nārang, which is in turn from the Sanskrit nāraṅga.

The Persian word for the pomegranate, anār, may also be related somewhere along the history of the word orange, so the word may literally just have meant ‘fruit’ at some point.

Certainly, there’s a fair bit of promiscuity when it comes to the etymologies of the fruity words we use every day. The word for another fruit, ‘melon’, actually means ‘apple’ in ancient Greek. It is thought to be a shortening of a longer form, mēlopepōn, which meant ‘ripe apple’.

Similarly, ‘camomile’ – as in the aromatic plant used to make the tea – is ultimately from Greek and means ‘earth’s apple’, because of the apple-smell of its flowers. In this sense it is not too far from the French for potato, pomme de terre, which means, of course, ‘apple of the earth’.

‘Orange’ was being used in English to describe the fruit by the late fourteenth century, if not earlier. Somewhere along the line, we lost the initial n which features in naranja and other cognate forms of the word, probably by a linguistic process known as metanalysis: so ‘a norange’ became ‘an orange’ (possibly the result of people mishearing the phrase), much as ‘a napron’ became ‘an apron’, ‘a nadre’ became ‘an adder’, and so on.

The word orange took until the mid-sixteenth century, it would seem, to be applied to the colour. This means that, before then, things which are clearly orange were described using other colours that don’t quite fit them: indeed, to this day we still talk about a ‘robin redbreast’ even though the robin’s breast is clearly orange.

One theory is that orange, naranja, and all the other cognate words for the fruit possibly come from the ancient Sanskrit naga ranga, which literally means ‘fatal indigestion for elephants’.

This theory has its roots in an ancient Malay fable, which made its way into the Sanskrit tongue in the seventh or eighth centuries BC. The fable links the orange to the sin of gluttony, with the elephant as the culprit.

The story has it that one day an elephant was walking through a forest, when he found a tree in a clearing, which was unknown to him. This tree was full of oranges, and the elephant sated himself on the fruit, until he had eaten so many that he (literally) burst.

Many years later, a man stumbled upon the scene and noticed the fossilised remains of the elephant with many orange trees growing from what had once been its stomach. The seeds or pips from the fruits had, in turn, borne their own fruit. This prompted the man to say, ‘Amazing! What a naga ranga (fatal indigestion for elephants)!’

It is certainly true that elephants regularly get drunk or intoxicated from eating rotten fruit that has fermented. Indeed, sometimes they even go on the rampage, killing a number of people each year. But whether this is the literal meaning of naga ranga, and therefore whether the word orange ultimately owes its origins to intoxicated pachyderms, remains uncertain.