Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Words, Wonderful Words

I wish I could have been an etymologist. You know, the word detective, not the bug fetishist -- the bug people get an extra 'n', and an 'o' instead of the 'y' -- critical differences seeing that although I adore words, I cannot bear insects.

But anyway, what kind of a profession is etymology? Who pays these people? Dictionary publishers? Eccentric millionaires who've decided they've absolutely got to have their own in-house word expert? I just don't see that much of a market, maalesef. A pity, since words, especially foreign ones, are so endlessly titillating. Just today, for example, I was pondering a couple of Turkish words that have been tickling my curiosity. Adam, the Turkish word for "man"...does it have anything to do with the Biblical Adam, or is it pure happenstance that the two bear the same name? Continuing along Old Testament lines, the Turkish word for 'snake,' yılan, is only one letter removed from yalan, the Turkish word for 'a lie.' Satan, the Father of Lies, is typically portrayed as a snake...again, coincidence? As a believer in the fundamental interconnectedness of most things (to paraphrase Douglas Adams), I tend to think not. The question is, what's the story there? I, for one, am dying to find out.

Alas for me, I can't make much headway on unravelling these puzzles, since they cross the language barrier and require delving into sources that I can't begin to penetrate. But here's one I had a bit more luck with. Unlike many other languages, the Turks have two different words for orange, the fruit, and orange, the color. The color orange is turuncu (the 'c' is pronounced like an English 'j'). If you say it often enough and fast enough, it starts to bear a slight resemblance to the English word 'orange.' Why? According to the online Dictionary of Etymology, the word 'orange' hails from the Persian narang . ''The initial n- was lost probably due to confusion with definite article (e.g. une narange, una narancia)," it reports. Hence 'orange' in English, and, if one indulges in a bit of imagination-stretching, turuncu in Turkish.

The orange fruit is another matter. In Turkish it is portakal , which inevitably conjures up images of sunny Portugal. A consultation with my online source reveals that the first oranges introduced to Europe were the Persian ones, which were the bitter, marmelade kind. The first sweet orange trees probably originated in India. It was Portugese traders who were the first to bring sweet Indian oranges to Europe, sometime in the 15th century. Following their arduous orange-laden journey through the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and back home to Portugal, the traders must have then headed into the eastern Mediterranean, hawking the newfound fruit to the peoples of those regions. An interesting footnote to the orange story: the dictionary reports that "only modern Greek seems to distinguish the bitter orange (nerantzi) from the sweet (portokali)." My theory is that the Turks originally used their derivation of the Persian narang for both the fruit and the color, but abandoned their use of the word for the fruit when Portugese traders came along hawking the ever-so-much-more-delicious sweet oranges. Fascinating.

Pondering the whences and wherefores of words makes me happy. When I close my eyes, I see the planet from a God's-eye view, and I think I can nearly make out the whole tapestry -- the ebb and flow of tribes and tools and customs and language, everyone minutely or significantly touching on someone else. We are all connected, whether we see it or not, our actions all meaningful ripples in a pond. Tracing the transformation of a word across time and geography is about more than that tiny, humble word. It is the unraveling of an intricate and beautiful tale, no less than the story of life of on earth.


At 6:48 PM, Anonymous Mum said...

I wish my students would share your wonder, enthusiasm, and intellectual curiosity! It sure would make it easier, and more fun, for me to teach them!

You are truly a "wonderful" person...full of wonder about things--especially about words, their roots, origins, antecedents. And you make connections between words and their historical origins.

Turkey is the perfect place for you to be to pursue these intellectual enthusiasms. It's so rich in history, culture, linguistic diversity.... Enjoy and appreciate being there to be able to explore all of this.

(By the way, I've wondered about "adam" too. If you can get a definitive explanation for the origin of this word please let me know.)

At 5:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

look up "narenciye", which is the word identifying of all the orange-ish fruits.. that'll add a bit more insight..

At 3:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Kate.

Nice intuitions you had. Although I stumbled upon your blog entry a few years after its initial posting, I'd like to take the opportunity to say I agree 100%. If you're still interested by this topic from a broader standpoint, feel free to have a look at our entry in the English Language and Usage community in which we look at how the colour is named after the fruit in various languages of the planet.

Cheers, Alain


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