Jan
18
2010

Were “oranges” once called “noranges”?

Photo by audreyjm529 - CC-BY

Photo by audreyjm529 - CC-BY

A frequently-repeated etymology of the fruit that we call an “orange” goes like this:

The fruit was not grown in England, and when the dock-hands unloaded the cargo ships they heard the fruit referred to by its Spanish name: naranja. From this it became known as “a norange”, but over time this became “an orange” which flowed off the tongue more smoothly.

That makes a good story, and good stories tend to spread. And indeed there is a process of language evolution called re-bracketing, where word boundaries change over time.

But good stories are not always true; sometimes they are just urban legends. And that’s the case with “noranges”.

A re-bracketing does appear to have taken place, but not in English. The original Old French word for an orange—une norenge—became re-bracketed as une orange, and from there the word came into English as an orange. Beyond Old French, the word probably originates from nāraṅga, the Sanskrit word for “orange tree”.

Genuine re-bracketings have occurred with other English words. For example, an adder (snake) was a naddre in Middle English, an apron was a napron, an auger was a nauger, a newt was an eute, a nickname was an eke name, and an umpire was a noumpere. But an orange was never a norange in English.

The color orange was named after the fruit. So how was that color described before the fruit was known in England? The Old English name for the color is geoluhread—literally yellow-red.

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