Where did “oranges” come from, anyway?

The word “orange” evolved from Sanskrit. The Chinese word for orange, in ancient as well as modern Chinese, is jyu, but it did not migrate with the fruit.

India was the first major stop in the westward travels of citrus, and the first mention of oranges in Sanskrit literature is found in a medical book called the Charaka-Sambita, which was compiled approximately two thousand years ago.

The Hindus called an orange a naranga, the first syllable of which, according to Tolkowsky, was a prefix meaning fragrance.

This became the Persian naranj, a word the Muslims carried through the Mediterranean. In Byzantium, an orange was a nerantzion.

This, in Neo-Latin, became variously styled as arangium, arantium, and aurantium— eventually producing naranja in Spain, laranja in Portugal, arancia in Italy, and orange in France.




Meanwhile, the Roman city of Arausio, in the South of France, had become, in the Provençal language, Aurenja— a name almost identical in sound and spelling to auranja, the Provençal word for orange. Gradually, the names of the city and the fruit evolved in the Provençal tongue to Orenge, and then to Orange.

In the early sixteenth century, Philibert of Orange, prince of the city, was awarded a good part of the Netherlands for his political and military services to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

The Prince had no immediate heir, and his possessions and titles eventually passed to a German nephew. This was William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, who founded the Dutch Republic and the House of Orange.

In honor of William’s descendants, Dutch explorers named the Orange River, in South Africa, and Cape Orange, in northern Brazil.

Fort Orange was the name of a Dutch settlement that eventually developed into Albany, New York.

After a Protestant prince of the House of Orange had served as King William III of England, a movement known as Orangeism was founded by Irish Protestants, who established the Orange Society, and even called their part of Ireland “The Orange.”

Commemorating their cause on the landscape of the New World, emigrant Orangemen gave the name “Orange” to towns, cities, and bodies of water, from Lake Orange, Maine, to Orangeburg, South Carolina.

Orangemen changed the name of Newark Mountains, New Jersey, to Orange Dale, which eventually became simply Orange, New Jersey, with its satellite towns of West Orange, South Orange, and East Orange— all as the result of a similarity of sound between the name of a transalpine Roman city and the name of a citrus fruit.




Nominal confusion also resulted from a tendency among Romans and Greeks to call any kind of fruit an apple.

When the Romans discovered the pomegranate in Punic Mauretania— now Morocco and Algeria— they called it the malum punicum.

When they came upon the peach, in Persia, they called it the malum persicum.

Centuries earlier, in Media and in Persia, botanists traveling with the conquering armies of Alexander the Great had found the citron and had named it, variously, the Median apple and the Persian apple.

Working later with material left by Alexander’s scientists in the archives of Babylon, Theophrastus, the greatest of Greek botanists, also described citrons as Persian and Median apples, and his work disseminated the terms throughout the ancient world.

It was a “golden apple” that Paris gave to Aphrodite, thus opening his way to the heart of Helen. In Antiphanes’ The Boeotian Girl, written in the fourth century B.C., a young man presents a citron to his mistress, and she says, “I thought it came from the Hesperides, For there they say the golden apples grow.”

Other Greeks, it appears, thought that the golden apples were quinces. Tolkowsky points out that a frieze in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia shows Herakles holding a handful of quinces.

In Rome, however, universal agreement seems to have been reached that the golden apples were citrus. According to Father Ferrari, the Romans thought that citrons, oranges, lemons, and other citrus fruits came to Italy in the arms of the Hesperides— the daughters of Hesperis and Atlas— who crossed the Mediterranean from Africa in a giant shell. Oranges actually reached the Italian peninsula from India.

In the first and second centuries A.D., it was only a seventy-day trip across the Indian Ocean from the Malabar Coast to the western shore of the Red Sea, twelve more days from Berenice by camel to the Nile, and another twelve down the river to waiting galleys at Alexandria. (Orange groves were established at Berenice and elsewhere on this route, which eventually branched into the Levant.)

Toward the end of the Roman Empire, oranges were flourishing on the Italian peninsula.

After the fall of Rome, oranges played a part in the great Lombard invasion. A Byzantine governor of Rome, enraged at being summarily called back to Byzantium, sent an embassy with a selected display of Italian oranges to Alboin, King of theLombards, inviting him to overrun Italy, which Alboin did.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, the forces of Islam conquered a wide corridor across the world from India to Spain, and orange, tangerine, and lemon trees today mark the track of the Muslim armies.

After Moorish capitals had been established in Andalusia, desert artisans and architects, delirious in the presence of water, filled and surrounded their buildings with pools, cascades, and fountains, planting a small grove of oranges in the Great Mosque of Cordova and oranges and lemons in the interior courts of the Alhambra in Granada.

One curious footnote to the rise of Islam developed in Italy in the eleventh century. A group of Norman pilgrims, on their way home from the Holy Land, came upon a band of warrior Muslims who were about to destroy the person and possessions of a Christian prince of Salerno. The Normans saved the prince and drove the Muslims away. Fearful of further attacks, the prince, like the Byzantine governor of Rome nearly five hundred years before him, sent an embassy with the pilgrims to the Duke of Normandy, accompanied by a mountainous gift of beautiful oranges, frankly tempting the Duke to conquer southern Italy— which he did, taking Sicily, too. The Norman conquest of Sicily turned into something of a scandal. Norman minds dissolved in the vapors of Muslim culture.

Austere knights of Honfleur and Bayeux suddenly appeared in the streets of Palermo wearing flowing desert robes, and attracted to themselves harems of staggering diversity, while the Church raged.

Norman pashas built their own alhambras. The Normans went Muslim with such remarkable style that even Muslim poets were soon praising the new Norman Xanadus. Of one such place, which included nine brooks and a small lake with an island covered with lemon and orange trees, the poet Abd ur-Rahman Ibn Mohammed Ibn Omar wrote: The oranges of the Island are like blazing fire Amongst the emerald boughs And the lemons are like the paleness of a lover Who has spent the night crying …


McPhee, John (2011-04-01). Oranges. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.


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