The Grammarphobia Blog

Orange aid

Q: I am a great admirer of your sessions on WNYC, but I was bothered by a seeming lack of historical knowledge on your part when you were asked last month about the word “orange” (for the fruit, the color, and the House of Orange).

A: It’s often difficult to come up with instant answers on the air, with the seconds ticking away, even for subjects I’ve researched previously. As you know the questions are unrehearsed, and the program is broadcast live.

Of course that’s no excuse for conveying misinformation – better to admit that one doesn’t know or doesn’t remember.

The word “orange” is very, very old, and is thought to go back to a family of Indian languages called Dravidian. I discussed its origins last year in a blog item about which “orange” came first – the color or the fruit.

As for how the ancient Dravidians got the word, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “The native home of the orange may have been south-east Asia, and the name may have originated there.”

As for the “Orange” with a capital O, that’s a different story. “Orange” is the name of a French town that was the capital of a medieval Provençal principality also called “Orange.”

In the 1500s, the principality came into possession of the Dutch royal family. Dutch princes continued to use the title “Orange” even after the principality was returned to the French in the 1700s. For example, William III of England had been a Prince of Orange and was often called William of Orange.

The OED says the origin of the dynastic name “Orange” is “somewhat obscure” but its similarity with the name of the color is mere chance: “The accidental coincidence of the appellation with the name of the colour … made the wearing of orange ribbons, scarfs, cockades, orange-lilies, etc., a symbol of attachment to William III” and to Protestantism.

The Orange Free State, one of the original provinces of South Africa, was named for the Orange River, which in turn was named after the Dutch royal house.

Thanks for keeping me on my toes, and keep listening!

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