Commentary – Orange is the new narangi

Joe McWilliams

When it comes to the humble orange, I have to admit I had no idea so many people have had so much fun trying to make rhymes for it.
“But why would anyone bother?” is probably what you were thinking.
Well, it takes a certain type of person. They may be quite few in number. But when they hear there is nothing in English that rhymes with a certain fruit, out comes the pencil and they commence scribbling away, trying to be the ones to crack the dilemma.
Dr. Seuss would not have had any trouble at all doing it. The good doctor never met a word he couldn’t make up another word to rhyme with. Whether he ever tackled ‘orange’ I don’t know, but some other smart-alecs certainly did. Here’s one, by Willard Espy:
“The four eng-
Ineers
Wore orange brassieres.”
I was trying to imagine the conversation that followed the arrival of the first-ever shipment of oranges to England. Way, way back whenever it was.
Englishman: “What are these things, Don Pedro?”
Spaniard: “We call them naranja, señor!”
By the way, which came first, the colour or the fruit? Did the colour orange even exist in misty Olde England before the orange showed up? It must have. In fact, it’s attested as far back as 1502, when the name of the fruit appears in a document describing the colour of clothing purchased for Margaret Tudor [the daughter of Henry VII]. Before that, says a certain online source I don’t like mentioning, the English called orange ‘‘yellow-red’ or ‘red-yellow’.
The name for the fruit itself goes way, way back, to the Dravidian language in ancient India. The word for orange in several languages of that region is quite close to ‘naranja’ of modern Spanish. Apparently. ‘orange’ is somebody’s way of saying that same word. It made its way from Dravidian, to Persian to Arabic, and from there into Mediterranean tongues. For the ‘orange’ version of the word, we have the Normal French to thank, as we do for much else in the English lingo.
For the orange itself, the Moors brought it into Spain in the 10th Century, but it was a bitter fruit then. Sweet oranges were unknown [at least in the West], until the late 1500s.
And the world’s largest producer of oranges? Brazil, at about 35 per cent, according to online sources. U.S is #2 and China charging up the table into third place.
In Portuguese, by the way, orange is ‘laranja’. Arabic, which is thought to have been the conduit for ‘naranja’ to get into Spanish, now calls orange something altogether different. It’s ‘pertkali’ – a version of that word is in use in several other languages of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, including Bulgarian [portocal], Azerbaijani [portagal], and even Greek [portokali]. Those all sound suspiciously like Portugal, which puts another wrinkle in the mystery.
Could oranges really have been introduced into the eastern Med from Portugal? The answer is yes. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to get around Africa into the Indian Ocean and gained all sorts of trading advantages as a result. One market they cornered must have been oranges.

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