A Brief History of Orange

cupHere's the story of a fun adventure we've had at Central High School over the last couple of days. I'm a huge fan of both podcasts and discussions about language, so Slate's language podcast, Lexicon Valley, is like my chocolate and peanut butter meeting in a Reece's Cup. The most recent episode (#43), asked and answered the question, "Which did the word 'orange' refer to first, the color or the fruit?" I was so excited about this that I not only polled my own students to see what their guess would be, but asked my colleagues in the English department to poll their students, too.  (Thanks to Mike Voulo for the idea of polling people to find out their guesses, and thanks to lexicographer Ben Zimmer for the wonderful answer to the question itself!)  

ripe orange with leaves on white backgroundAt present, with some ballots still uncounted, our count is 175 votes for the color coming first, and 286 for the fruit coming first. Drumroll… The short answer is that the word has evolved from a  word naming the fruit, not the color. The story is a lot more fascinating than that, though, and it gives us some insight into the origin of our language and the ways languages work in general.


First of all, it turns out that there is an evolution in every language when it comes to naming colors. Cultures start out with words for dark and light. Then they add red. Next come blue and green. Colors like purple and orange come much later. The tribes in England who formed the basis for our language, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, had no word for the color orange. If they wanted to describe something that was orange, they called it red-yellow. If you’ve ever wondered why we call people who have orange hair “redheads,” this makes total sense. They couldn’t call them “orangeheads.” They had no word for orange.


Meanwhile, long before the Angles ever came to England, in ancient China, in about 2500 B.C., they had this fruit that was orange. We have no idea what they called it, but by the time it made it down to India, we have record of its name in Sanskrit in an Indian medical book from around 2000 B.C., and they called it “naranga.” The word “naru” means “fragrant” in some other languages from the Indian subcontinent, so we guess it meant “fragrant fruit.”


From India, the word moved to Persia, and in Persian it became “nārang.” From there, it went to Arabic and became “nāranj.”


Muslim merchants introduced it to various European languages, and it became “naranja” in Spanish, “narancia” in Italian, “nerantzion” in Byzantine Greek.


Then, some of those European countries started dropping the first consonant. The Italian “narancio” became “arancio.” Late Latin got “aurantium.” (Slight digression: This happens in languages when the article, like “a” or “an” gets mixed up with the word. For example, in English, the word “adder” used to be “nadder,” but people describing “a nadder” eventually switched it to “an adder.” Conversely, our word “newt” used to be “ewt,” but “an ewt” became “a newt.” Thanks again, Mr. Zimmer!)


Now here’s where the story of our English word gets really weird and cool! In the south of France, in the Provence region, they spoke a dialect of a language called Occitan. It’s not French. Actually, it’s closest relative is the Catalan language spoken in Catalonia, a part of modern Spain. Anyway, in that Provance region, there was an old Roman city named after a Celtic god, Aracio, a god of water. Over time, the name of the town changed so that, in the Provençal language, it was Aurenja. The Provençal  word for the fruit, by then, had evolved into auranja. Over time, they blend, until people there are calling both the city and the fruit Orenge. Eventually, this becomes “orange.”


But wait! How did this word get to English? Well, the prince of this city, a dude named Prince Philebert of Orange, was given control of a good chunk of The Netherlands because he helped out the Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. But he had no heir, so his title passed to his German nephew, William of Nassau. William then founded the House of Orange that became the ruling family of the newly independent Netherlands. He started The 80 Years War with Spain. His grandson Charles become a king of England. How? Well, the English decided that they were worried about their new Catholic king, James II, so they deposed him in the Revolution of 1688, then reached out to a prince from the nearby Protestant royal family so they could have a new Protestant king. "Oh look! There's a Protestant royal family right over there, across the English channel in The Netherlands. It's the House of Orange!" When Charles arrived, the English greeted him with orange banners and, of course, oranges. Charles then encouraged Protestants to settle in Ireland, so the Protestants Orangemen parade in Belfastthere come to be known as the Orangemen. The color orange not only came to be part of English, but it took on important symbolism for Protestants in the British Isles. I'll bet the folks waving those orange banners for Charles III had no idea that his family's color came from a town far from The Netherlands, in the south of France, which acquired its name, ultimately, because of a completely random coincidence involving the similar names of a Celtic god and a Chinese fruit!


English is the most bizarre, wacky, fascinating language ever, and I’m so glad I get to teach it!

Orange TV


(Again, I owe credit for this whole story to Ben Zimmer who wrote it here and told it here.)

Another Wacky Spam Message

I've posted bizarre and amusing spam messages posted to the comments section of this blog before (here, here, and here), but this one might just take the cake. You can decide what kind of cake that is. Is it gross? Is it just stupid? Is it accidentally stupid-gross?

"The German settlers loved their Pumpernickel, Rye, and sexchat as pleasant. The next step was using HTC's impressive on-screen keyboard in portrait. Row 18: Sl st in beginning sc. In a sea of faces filled with many players from around the lake, or a 5 megapixel camera with a public school sexchat teachers, only joys will come true. Here is my web-site sexcams [link removed]"

Is this a history of sexchat traced all the way back to America's early German settlers? Are there sexchat teachers in public schools?  (That class hasn't been offered in any school where I've studied or taught.) And how are a sea of faces shoved into the space of a lake? And is it really believable that, with an ocean worth of players who come from around a smaller body of water, and with some teachers assigned to teach dubious curriculum, a 5 megapixel camera will produce only joy? I would guess some sorrows would come true, too. I suppose I could have checked out the sexcams to see if these questions are answered there, but I have a feeling they're something less than philosophical, and I enjoy the mystery. Keep the weirdness coming, illiterate robots!

Student Wish List, Teacher Heartbreak

I'm in the midst of a marathon essay-grading day, but I have to stop and write about this immediately, because it has to be one of the saddest things I've ever come across.

This year, one of the classes I'm teaching is Language Arts in Spanish. It's not a Spanish class, but a class on reading and writing skills taught in Spanish for students who are learning English in other classes but also need language arts credit. For the semester final, I gave the students a collection of prompts taken directly from the state's example state test writing prompts, just translated. One prompt asked students to imagine they could switch places with anyone in the world and tell the story of what would happen. This student lost track of the prompt during the outlining process and ended up turning in a list of things she wished she could change about herself. It's absolutely heartbreaking.

She starts by saying she'd like to be taller, because she's sick of being called a midget. Then she says she'd like to be prettier, because she's sick of being called ugly. She capitalized Ugly, as though people use this in place of her name. Then she wished she had blue eyes, that her hair weren't so black, and that it weren't so straight. She also wished she could be a bit fatter so people would stop calling her Skinny. She wished she could do well in school so that someday she could become a lawyer. Then she wished she were more intelligent. She wished she could speak English better so she could speak to more people at school. Finally, she wished she could get a job so she could help out her family and contribute more to her household.

I certainly can't reveal this student's identity, but I think I can share this essay because there are a half a dozen girls in that class who could have written this list, and dozens of boys and girls in my other classes who could have written a variation on it in English. Here's what I can't figure out how to say to her, and to all those students, male and female, carrying around all this self-loathing: "These values you aspire to are cultural constructions. You want to be fatter because you get called Skinny, and some of the other girls are risking their health and maybe their lives because they are so afraid of being called Fattie. You want blue eyes because that's the color of the contact lenses the models plop in before the photo shoot. You want curly hair while the girls (and boys) with curly hair want straight hair. And those desires to reach an unattainable standard of beauty (a standard that has been intentionally designed to be unattainable so you will buy lots of expensive and unnecessary beauty products to look any way but the way you were born to look) will eat away at you on the inside until you are filled up with anger and pain. And then you will lose the best thing you had going for you, your kindness. That warm smile you wear when you come into my classroom will fade and be replaced by a sneer. That great, quiet, nervous laugh you have will become a derisive snort. And someday you will see someone who looks just like you, or just the opposite, or anywhere in between, and you will call her Ugly. Please, oh please don't let that happen. Do not accept the behavior of the kind of asshole who would even consider calling you Midget or Skinny or Ugly or anything other than your given name, and don't replicate that behavior yourself. And don't internalize that kind of person's judgement, or you will find yourself in relationships with people who hold just as low an opinion of you as you do. Don't let that happen. Please. I'm begging."

But I can't say that (and only partly because I shouldn't be using the word "asshole" when talking to my students, even when I'm referring to someone that fills me with rage). I'm going to try to get her an appointment with one of our school's counselors, and I'm going to have a talk with one of her other teachers, a smart, successful Spanish speaking female teacher I think this student will more readily accept as a mentor. But I also can't have the conversation because there are two competing voices in my head, and they both make me so angry that I'm in no position to calmly share my fears with this student. I hear these voice coming out of my TV, I read them in the comments sections online, and now I can't get their echoes to stop. Here's what I'd like to say to those two voices.

"Hey, doofy, naive, post-millennial 'liberal' voice, shut up. No, I'm not going to tell her that she'll be a super model one day. No, I'm not even going to tell her that she can be anything she wants to be, and that, if she tries really hard, she can become a lawyer. She can hardly speak any English, and unless she stumbles on a pot of leprechaun's gold, she's going to go to work to help out her family rather than continue her education long enough to make up for the deficiencies in her English skills. Your ridiculous notion that everyone can be exactly what they want to be is well-intentioned, but also hurtful and stupid. I'm not going to tell my kids to settle, but I'm also not going to tell them that they will have it all. Self-esteem like hers is a real problem, but a self-concept that is out of touch with reality is just a gateway to narcissism, or to a crushing disappointment when she finds out that the people who told her she was perfect were liars. She is good and kind. Why isn't that enough? And why do you want me to lie to a good person?"

"And you, callous, privileged "conservative" voice, you can just shove it. I hear what you're muttering under your breath. One minute you're saying poor people need to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The next you're whispering about illegal immigration and English-only education. I know nothing about her legal status, and neither do you. The difference is that I don't want to know, because I know that we're all better off if everyone in our country is educated, while you want to pass moral judgements based on an over-simplified view of a deeply flawed system you don't understand. I do know a bit more than you do about teaching people English, and I know that if I'd dropped you into a Chinese or Iranian school when you were a kid you would not have been a big fan of Chinese-only or Persian-only education. Guess what? You probably wouldn't have learned Chinese or Persian as quickly in an immersion model, either, but you would have been so focused on learning Chinese or Persian that you would have fallen years behind in science and math and never caught up to your Chinese or Iranian classmates. So don't tell me my business. Now, as for your pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps BS, here's a perfect example of why that's garbage, and only somebody who starts out with some advantages (white, male, intelligent, or wealthy) can possibly let those words come out of his mouth without sarcasm. She's right in front of you. She's a human being. She has all kinds of disadvantages, and she won't just catch up no matter how hard she yanks on her bootstraps. Don't you look away from her! She's hurting right now, and your entitled disregard for her pain is disgusting."

So you can see why I'm the last person in the world who should try to console this poor kid. There's too much shouting going on in my own head. But she handed this wish list to me. What does that say about the rest of her world?

Learning to Read Like a Writer

[I've been given a opportunity to write a piece for amwriting.org, a blog for and by writers who follow the #amwriting hash-tag on Twitter. My piece will appear on the 30th. Since it's a bit of advice for writers, I should also take some other advice I give students: Whenever possible, get some fresh eyes on your work. So, here's the piece I plan to submit. Please let me know about anything I should fix, cut, or improve before this hits a site with a broader readership while bearing my name under the title. Even if it's just a little typo, let me know in the comments section below. This is the second draft, after some great help from a couple of writer friends. There's still time for more tweaks, though, so keep 'em coming!]

Here’s a secret writers need to learn in order to master their craft: Writers need to learn to read. They don’t need to consume all the books on the New York Times best sellers list just to see which kind of monster is producing the most sales. Writers need to learn to read differently from readers. Writers need to understand that reading is part of practicing.

Part of my job as a high school English teacher consists of teaching students to become better readers by teaching them to identify the purpose of their reading. Are they reading for pleasure? Are they seeking information? Are they analyzing an argument in order to be persuaded or to refute the author’s position? Good readers can do these things. And that’s enough.

But it’s not enough for writers. Writers are artists, and artists need to be able to examine the works of their peers and betters in a different way.

Consider, as an analogy, film. When one of my sixteen-year-old students goes to see the newest big Hollywood blockbuster at the Cineplex this summer, he is satisfied by the experience. As a viewer, he was looking for entertainment, and the movie delivered. Done and done. Now, the cinephile goes to the movie theater and watches the same film (not anything high-brow, but something competently-made) and is also entertained. But she thinks about the structure of the story, the characters, the setting, the themes: She is, in short, a reader of film as text, and because she can do all the things we try to teach good readers to do when they pick up a novel, she gets a lot more out of the movie. She does not, however, come out of the theater talking about the tracking and handy-cam shots, diegetic and non-diegetic sound, side lighting and back lighting, fast cuts and slow fades. These were the techniques that gave the movie its punch and made it satisfying, but they aren’t her business.

They are the business of the movie critic. The critic studied film back in college. She can not only tell you that The Conversation is her favorite Francis Ford Coppola movie, but she can explain why in great detail. She watches movies for a purpose, but it’s not to be entertained or to be informed or to be persuaded. At least, those aren’t enough. She watches movies because it’s her business, her livelihood, to evaluate them based on her vast knowledge of the way they are made, as well as what they make her think and how they make her feel.

And then there’s the film director. He watches movies differently than the casual viewer, the cinephile, and the critic. He watches to learn. For him, watching movies is part of his artistic education. It’s practice.

Writers need to do the same thing. When we pick up a novel, we can remember why we fell in love with books when we were young. We can enjoy being transported to new places, getting to know new people, and absorbing new ideas. We can even evaluate the works in the same way critics do. But we cannot afford to stop there. We need to read differently. For us, every choice of simple or complex vocabulary, every choice about following the basic rules or breaking them, every choice about revealing the minutia about a character or hiding it serves as a lesson which will make us better writers. This is because we recognize all these things for what they are: Choices. Choices made by writers. Writers just like us, only better. Admitting that last part is absolutely essential to becoming better writers ourselves. As long as we hold fast to the same choices we’ve always made, believing we are God’s gift to our readers, then not only is our writing a waste of time, but our reading is, too. Arrogant writers aren’t just obnoxious; they’re missing out on vital time to practice.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, talks about a group of psychologists who studied violin students in Germany. They divided the students up into three groups based on ability as determined by their teachers, then tried to figure out what made the great ones great, and the mediocre ones mediocre. What they found was that the great ones practiced more. Not just a little bit. A lot more. In fact, they found a magic number necessary to become a virtuoso: 10,000 hours of practice. At a good clip, that takes ten years. They also didn’t find too much deviation from that. None of the virtuosos got by with very little practice, and none of the mediocre violinists practiced for 10,000 hours and remained mediocre.

Then, the psychologist began looking into other fields, and they found that the same magic number held up in every endeavor they examined. 10,000 hours. Athletes. Computer programmers. Ballerinas. Composers. And yes, writers.

The quality of those hours matters as much as the quantity, and that’s why writers need to change the way they read; it’s the difference between 10,000 hours of entertainment versus 10,000 hours of practice. One of Gladwell’s examples of 10,000 hours is the early Beatles before the British Invasion, when they were just a struggling rock band trying to find gigs. They worked in strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany and would often play for eight hours straight to non-English speaking audiences and compete for attention with the strippers. Not only did this give them a chance to compose songs that are probably on your ipod right now, but they also had to learn dozens, probably hundreds of covers, and not just of rock and roll songs but of Jazz standards and other genres. What Gladwell doesn’t discuss is the influence of the music Lennon and McCartney were listening to, both before the Beatles formed and during this time. I would bet good money that these guys were not only reading the crowds to see what was working, but they were also listening carefully to the music on the radio and on the albums they bought, and listening in a different way than you or I. They were reading the music to become better musicians.

My preferred example (as a die-hard NBA fan), would be a basketball player. If a basketball player practices his shot for 10,000 hours, he will get to the point where he can sink his free-throws a very high percentage of the time, he’ll know where he can hit the highest percentage of three-pointers, and he’ll make some very tricky moves under the hoop on a drive. And he will lose. Why? Because he didn’t spend some of that time reading the scouting report about, and watching tape of, his prospective opponents. His 10,000 hours were spent becoming an oddity, a guy who could mop the floor with you at HORSE, and in its own way that is becoming a virtuoso. But he won’t be a great basketball player, because he didn’t learn to read his opponents.

Sure, the analogy is imperfect. Writing is at once less collaborative (despite great writing communities like #amwriting, we do our work in isolation), and less competitive (we don’t go head-to head with another author or team of authors. It’s not a zero sum game. More good books can generate more readers.) Maybe we’re less like players watching tapes of their opponents to learn to beat them and more like players watching the greats to learn from them.

So pick up a copy of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and learn from her choice to write the book not only in first person, but in the present tense. Crack open Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and learn from his choice to eschew dialogue tags and conventional punctuation, then follow up with All the Pretty Horses or No Country for Old Men to reassure yourself that it’s not a fluke that just happens to work brilliantly but a conscious and careful choice he’s not always bound by. Read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and learn how a premise that seems doomed to be saccharine and trite becomes beautiful and powerful because of careful choices of characterization and intentional withholding.

Then go grab that guilty pleasure book on your nightstand. You know you have one. This is the huge hit by that debut novelist that fills you with rage when you read about the sales figures, and you grouse about it so publicly and with such vehemence that you can’t possibly admit how much you enjoyed the book yourself. Now, when you are flying through that weak prose, that thin characterization, or that awful adverb-filled dialogue attribution that makes you want to throw the book at the wall, stop and figure out why you don’t. Sure, it’s fine to identify the things you don’t like about the book. Note those choices so you will make different ones. But also acknowledge that there’s a reason that book is in your hands, and other copies are in a lot of other hands at the same time.

If you’re willing to do that, to learn from your betters (and yes, that hack on the New York Times best sellers list is your better, at least in some way), then reading becomes part of your practice time, part of the 10,000 hours you need to rack up in order to become a true master of the art. Writing is practicing your shot. Reading is watching tape. You must do both to be great.

The Oregon Writing Project: Acrostic Poem

As I do my homework to prepare for the Summer Institute of the Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University, I thought I'd post my attempts here. Our first assignments all relate to our names. Here's my first whack at an acrostic poem:

The Sound more than the History

Beginning with Hebrew
Even though I’m not Jewish
Never bothered me.
Jealous of that tradition, really.
Ancestors did wander in the desert
Millennia ago.
I feel I missed out on something
Not being counted among the Chosen.

Descending from Scotland, too.
Our ancestors wore kilts.
Undeniably ostentatious.
Guess I have to admit to some of that.
Listing my middle name here
Advertises some deep-seated need to show off,
-----though not confident enough to wear

Got here from Ireland, as well.*
Over the Atlantic with my other ancestors, the blood
Running together: ancestors traveling from
-----Poland, Romania, England, Germany, Portugal...*
Makes one think
About all the struggles and sacrifices,
-----scrambling and scratching and surviving.
Name should sound a lot stronger, but…

-----I’ve grown to fit the sound more than the history.

(Note on 6/14/10
*#1 This line read, "Got here from Ireland, too." Switched to "as well" because I just noticed I had "too" twice.
*#2 This line was edited after my Uncle Doug, for whom I received my middle name, wrote to inform me that the original line was inaccurate. It read: "Running together: Hungarian, Polish, German, English, Portuguese..." It turns out that, though some relatives came from Poland, they were not ethnically Polish, but Ashkenazi Jews. Similarly, the Hungarians referenced were not Hungarian, but also Ashkenazi Jews. Only it turns out they probably didn't live in Hungary, but in Romania. Hence the new line. Frankly, I think the line is a bit clunkier now. Before the blood ran together and made one think. I like that. Now the blood runs together (need to use the "r" after all) but it's the ancestors traveling which makes one think. Ironic that I'm sacrificing a bit of the sound of the poem to get the history correct, considering the poem's last line.)