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The Etymology of Food, Part I: Why Nothing Rhymes With Orange

One of my college history professors once claimed that the reason there is no English word that rhymes with orange is that it is one of the few words derived from Persian. He was only partly right; according to the Dictionary of Word Origins, by John Ayto, the word entered our language in the 14th ...

Bananas, courtesy Flickr user ian_ransley



One of my college history professors once claimed that the reason there is no English word that rhymes with orange is that it is one of the few words derived from Persian. He was only partly right; according to the Dictionary of Word Origins, by John Ayto, the word entered our language in the 14th century from the French, who got it from the Spanish naranj (now naranja). The Spanish word was a variation of an Arabic word, which was itself an adaptation of a Persian word. But the word's origin is in northern India, from Sanskrit.

The etymology of words, especially food words, is fascinating for what it can tell you about how a food was introduced to English (and American) palates. Of course, many food names, like foie gras and pad thai (which, according to my dictionary, first appeared in English in 1818 and 1978, respectively), enter our language unaltered from their original sources. But many more have interesting histories. I spent hours leafing through Ayto's book. (He also compiled the Glutton's Glossary, all about the origins of food words, which is on my to-read list). There's too much to cover in one post, so I'll focus on fruit words for now and turn to other foods in a future post.

Orange, the fruit, actually had an even longer journey than its name. The earliest oranges grew wild in China, and were probably cultivated as early as 2500 B.C. By the time the word entered English, orange groves had been a common feature of Spain and Portugal for centuries, having been introduced by the Moors. Christopher Columbus brought citrus seeds to North America (specifically, to Hispaniola, the island that is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) on his second voyage, in 1493.

The peach took a similar path. According to Ayto, its original Latin name, malum persicum, meant "'Persian apple,' reflecting the fact that the peach, a native of China, first became widely known in Europe when it reached Persia on its westward journey." Like "orange," "peach" entered English in the 14th century, following a stop in Old French.

Not all fruits originated in Asia: "Plum" and "prune" both come from the Greek proumnon, via Latin . Although plums also grew in China, European varieties were discovered as early as 2,000 years ago around the Caspian Sea. "Berry" has Germanic origins, and "fruit" comes from Latin.

"Banana" has a more exotic past. It entered the language in the 16th century from a West African language, possibly Wolof, which is spoken in Senegal and Gambia. After Spanish and Portuguese explorers encountered bananas, they passed both the fruit and the name along to England.

Interestingly, "apple" originally referred to any fruit when it emerged from Old English in the 12th century (its origins are a little hazy, though it is similar to the fruit's name in other languages, including the German A pfel and the Dutch appel). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this may be the reason we now associate apples with the story of Adam and Eve, since the book of Genesis left the name of the "fruit of the forbidden tree" unnamed.

One of my favorite bits of trivia is about the origins of pineapple, which doesn't sound very tasty if you think about it. Before the fruit was discovered, "pineapple" referred to pine-cones, Ayto writes, "but in the mid-17th century the name was transferred to the tropical plant whose juicy yellow-fleshed fruit was held to resemble a pine-cone." Suddenly it all makes sense.
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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