Orange You Glad I Didn’t Say Banana*

Bunch o' Fruit

Why is an orange called an “orange” when a banana isn’t called a “yellow”?

My 6-year-old boy/girl twins are a great source for “why” questions. The other night, I was reading my daughter “Amelia Bedilia’s First Apple Pie,” by Herman Parish. It’s a charming book, and right up my alley as it’s filled with silly word play. For example, rather than go to the supermarket for apples, Granddad tells Amelia they’re going to the farmers’ market to which Amelia asks, “What? Do we need to buy a farmer?” While they are baking, Grandma asks Amelia to get her a little flour. From the little plant on the windowsill, Amelia picks a small bloom.

Anyway, the variety of apple Grandma wants for the pie is Granny Smith. My daughter asked why they named them Granny Smith. I didn’t know the reason, but promised to find out. The answer: the cultivar originated in Australia in 1868 and is named after the woman who propagated it, Maria Ann “Granny” Smith.

That got me thinking about the names of fruit in general. For example, why is an apple called an apple? The English word, like the German, Dutch, and Swedish, comes from the Old English æppel. The French use pomme, which came from the Latin pomum. Interestingly, before the Roman Empire adopted Christianity in the 4th century, pomum was used generically to refer to any fruit. After this time, due to the symbolic importance of the apple in the Garden of Eden, pomum was used to refer specifically to the apple as “the fruit of fruits.”

What about an orange? I’d guess most people think it’s just named that because of its color. Turns out the name of the fruit preceded the use of the word orange to describe the color. Prior to that, the color was called red-yellow or yellow-red. But back to the name of the fruit. It actually goes all the way back to the Sanskrit word, nāraṅgaḥ, which was the term for an orange tree. From the Sanskrit, the Persian word nārang was derived, and from there Armenian (nārinj), Arabic (nāranj), Spanish (naranja), Late Latin (arangia), Italian (arancia), and Old French (orenge).

In researching this, I found several blogs and websites that suggested the original Sanskrit source words were “naga ranga,” literally meaning “fatal indigestion for elephants.” Supposedly, there was an ancient fable in which an elephant came across an orange tree heavy with fruit and ate so many that his stomach burst. Years later, a man happened upon the elephant’s skeleton with a bunch of orange trees growing from where its stomach would have been. The man exclaimed, “Amazing! These must be naga ranga!” (fatal indigestion for elephants). It’s a fun story, but I am rather skeptical of the validity of this history. I can’t claim a knowledge of Sanskrit, but I did check an online Sanskrit dictionary and it didn’t jibe.

How about one more: pomegranate. Relatively straight forward, this originates from the medieval Latin words pōmum for “apple” and grānātum for”seeded.” This was the basis for the name of the fruit in many languages, including English and Old French which used the name pome granate. The French shortened this to just grenade. The French word served as the source for the military weapon since the hand grenade has a shape similar to the fruit and is filled with hundreds of pieces of shrapnel.

There are a lot more fruit names with fascinating origins. You can just search on “etymology” and the name of the fruit to find them individually. But here’s an article on Melissa’s/World Variety Produce website that covered a lot them.

*In case you’re wondering about the title of this article—back to the 6-year-old twins—there’s an old “Knock, Knock” joke that goes:

“Knock, knock.” | “Who’s there?” | “Banana” | “Banana who?”

“Knock, knock.” | “Who’s there?” | “Banana” | “Banana who?”

“Knock, knock.” | “Who’s there?” | “Orange” | “Orange who?” | “Orange you glad I didn’t say ‘banana’?”

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  1. #1 by olympiadxxx on 07.26.12 - 11:32

    My 10th grade English teacher, who was also the Latin teacher, incorporated etymology into his curriculum. Every week we had to give him the etymology of a word of our choosing. It might have seemed frivolous at the time but it helped me immensely in studying foreign languages as well as in my writing. Here’s to you Mr. Robinson! Etymology IS fun. Thanks for reminding me.

    • #2 by donr0217 on 07.31.12 - 14:30

      I’m glad I gave you pause to reflect. So often as kids in school, we just can’t imagine why our teacher is having us waste our time and energy on so many seemingly pointless activities. It’s only later that we discover they knew exactly why there were asking us to do whatever it was. So I’ll join you in saluting not only Mr. Robinson, but all of our educators. Cheers.

  2. #3 by Lisa Christiano Rose on 07.30.12 - 17:51

    I, too, love words and think in words, not pictures. I find etymology really interesting and puns are just funny to me. I have been helping my two teens with their English homework and they do a lot of etymology sourcing. It’s challenging at times to find the true “first” of a word. You sometimes get competing versions of what the true origin was. Funny story about the naga ranga. Who knew.

    • #4 by donr0217 on 07.31.12 - 14:48

      It’s good to hear that etymology is a significant component of English homework. Not only can it be helpful with vocabulary and language skills in general, but it can add a lot of color to the history of our words, even if there are not always definitive histories. I hope you’ll continue to enjoy my blog.

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