Oranges everywhere

19 juni 2014

This is a list of languages and their word for the fruit 'orange':

Language 'orange'
Albanian portokalli
Arabic برتقال (burtuqaal)
Azerbaijani portağal
Bulgarian портокал (portokal)
Persian پرتقال (porteqâl)
Romanian portocal
Turkish portakal

Notice anything? Don't all these words look a lot like Portugal? In all of those languages, these are the normal words for 'orange' and if you would ask an Arab if they associate 'orange' with 'Portugal', chances are they will answer: "No, we have a different word for 'Portugal'." In fact, all of these languages have a different word for the country Portugal:

Language 'orange' 'Portugal'
Albanian portokalli Portugalia
Arabic برتقال (burtuqaal) البرتغال (al-burtughaal)
Azerbaijani portağal Portuqaliya
Bulgarian портокал (portokal) Португалия (Portugalia)
Persian پرتقال (porteqâl) پرتغال (porteghâl)
Romenian portocal Portugalia
Turkish portakal Portekiz

That could be why their speakers may not be aware but the orange was named after the country Portugal in Albanian, Arabic and the other languages. Why would you name a fruit after a country? In the sixteenth century, Portuguese sailors were the first to import sweet oranges from China, associating the country with the fruit. You can compare it to how people say Kleenex for tissues, even if they are from a different brand.

China's apples

In other languages, the word for 'orange' doesn't look like Portugal at all. In Dutch, the fruit was named after the exporter instead of the importer. Dutch sinaasappel (appelsien) originally meant 'China's apple'. With Amsterdam functioning as a hub for the transport of oranges to northern Europe, the Dutch word was distributed along with the fruit.

Language 'orange'
Belarusian апельсі́н (apel'sin)
Danish appelsin
Estonian apelsinipuu
Finnish appelsiini
Latvian apelsīns
Lithuanian apelsinas
Norwegian appelsin
Russian апельсин (apel'sin)
Swedish apelsin
Ukrainian апельси́н (apel'sin)

More oranges

But where does English gets the word orange from? In fact, quite a few languages outside of English have a similar word.

Taal 'sinaasappel'
English orange
French orange
Hungarian narancs
Italian arancia
Portuguese laranja
Spanish naranja

The oranges brought to Europe by the Portuguese were not the first oranges arriving in the continent. The first oranges had been imported in the Middle Ages. They had a bitter taste, whereas the oranges from China were sweet and therefore more popular. When we speak of oranges nowadays, we think of the Chinese, sweet type of orange. The bitter orange is still used for example to produce marmalade. It is also sometimes called the Seville orange. You don't need to walk around Seville for a long time to understand why.

zure sinaasappel

When the Europeans got to see an orange for the first time, it was the bitter orange, which originated from India. In the Middle Ages, Persians introduced the fruit to Arabs, who then brought it to Europe. Together with the fruit, the ancient Indian name of the fruit traveled to Europe. In Sanskrit, the word for 'orange tree' was नारंग (naranga). One could say that Sanskrit used to be for India what Latin used to be for Europe: a scholar and liturgical language serving as a lingua franca. The word became نارنج (narenj) in Persian and نرنجة (naranjah) in Arabic. In Spanish naranjo became the word for the plant and the fruit was called naranja. Ironically the ones who were first to introduce the orange in Europe, the Arabs, later called the orange by the name of the country that started importing the sweet orange, Portugal: برتقال (burtuqaal).

A norange

When the French borrowed the word naranja from the Spanish, the initial n- disappeared because the n was interpreted as belonging to the previous word: une narange was interpreted as une arange. This happens quite often in languages: in English too: an apron used to be a napron, an adder was originally a nadder, etc.

How the o replaced the a is a bit of a mystery. This may have happened under influence of or, the French word for 'gold', given the color of the fruit's peel. That color was so specific, people named the orange's color after the orange itself, as we still do in English. So if you ever wondered which was first: the fruit was first, then the color (or rather its name).


Summarizing we can say that there were two types of oranges: a bitter kind and a sweet kind. In some languages, like English, the name for the former stuck and was expanded to the latter: in those languages the word for orange goes back to Sanskrit. In other languages the name for the second type of orange replaced the older word. There the orange was called after the importer (Portugal) or exporter (China). This map shows the distribution of the three groups over Europe.

kaart Europa woord voor sinaasappel Source: Reddit

In Greek, both words are still used and make the difference between bitter and sweet oranges: they have πορτοκαλιά (portokalia) and νεραντζιά (nerantzia). Thanks to this post you'll know which ones to order at a fruit stand next time when it's all Greek to you.