The Orange—how sweet it isn’t!
West Coast Editor,
January 2007

When I studied Spanish an ice age ago, I could not understand why the word for orange was naranja when cognate Romance languages French and Italian have orange and aranciata, respectively. Even German has “Orange.” “Where did the Spanish ‘n’ come from,” I wondered? Turns out, I was wondering about the wrong word, because the “n” justifies the means of investigating the answer.

“Orange” is one of those subtle mispronunciations that gave rise to a misspelling that in turn became the new standard. By rights, we ought to spell the word “norange,” since the word comes from the naranj [j= dzh], the Sanskrit–Persian–Arabic genealogy that naranja [j=h] reflects.

In the 11th century, the Persian naranj tree was introduced into southern Europe where it proliferated agriculturally and mutated linguistically. In French, for example, it would have entered the language as something like une nerange or une narange, but here and elsewhere the “n” sound of the naranj variant migrated to the indefinite article, leaving only the vowel, e.g.: une narange became une orenge (12 c. Fr.). Therefore we should properly speak of “a norange,” not “an orange.” (A similar fate happened to “a napron” which became “an apron.”)

On the other hand, we probably shouldn’t speak of “orange” at all, since the fruit we associate with that name is not related to naranj, which is small and bitter. In the 15th century a sweet orange from northern India made its way to Europe courtesy of Portuguese traders, and it quickly displaced the bitter naranj. Greek retains the distinction between bitter orange (nerantzi) and the sweet orange (portokali “Portuguese.”) as does Arabic, naranj/ burtuqaal.

The portokali, not the naranj, made its way to this side of the Atlantic during Christopher Columbus’s second voyage in 1493. Two decades later, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon introduced lemons and the portokali to Florida, but the proper terminology didn’t survive the trip.