Word history duels

Was the word “orange” first applied to the colour or the fruit? Was “Turkey” first a bird or a country? Was “duck” first an action or an animal? “Organ” the instrument or “organ” the body part?

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

The history of words is a tangled web. Words jump from other languages, split meanings, merge meanings, die, and are resurrected. Amongst the remnants of this etymological dance are words that sound the same but carry very different meanings. “Orange” is both a colour and a fruit. “Organ” is a body part and a musical instrument. If you squint, you can see the connection between the two… but which one came first? Did we call the fruit the “orange” because of its colour, or was the colour named after the fruit? Or is the similarity in names just a coincidence?

“Orange” was a fruit long before it was a colour. The word for the fruit came to English via Sanskrit, then Persian, then Arabic, then Italian, then French, then finally English. The word was not used to describe the colour in English until the 16th century; before then, “red” was used instead. (That’s why we call people with orange hair redheads, by the way.)

“Turkey” the country came first; the bird species was named after the Turkish merchants who imported the animal into Europe in the 16th century.

“Duck” surprised me. In Old English, the animal we call a duck was known as an “ænid” or “ænit.” (And, indeed, you can see that history in other European languages like the German “Entenvögel.”) The name of the animal switched to match its distinctive diving action some time before the 14th century, when it showed up in the Middle English poem Piers Plowman.

In English, “organ” was used to describe a musical instrument long before it was applied to internal body parts. Actually, it was originally used to describe any musical instrument – the word narrowed to the specific church-style organ in the 14th century. “Organ” as in the heart or lungs dates back to a Middle English translation of Guy de Chauliac’s influential Latin medical text Chirurgia Magna. The medical meaning didn’t come from the musical meaning, though; they both came from the same Latin source.

[Etymologies adapted from the OED.]

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