• Question: why is an orange called an orange but a banana not called a yellow?

    Asked by followtheyellowbrickroad to Meeks, Pete, Stephen, Steve, Tom on 22 Jun 2010 in Categories: .
    • Photo: Steve Roser

      Steve Roser answered on 17 Jun 2010:

      Bonjour me old fruit. Dunno why this is, but what I do know is that there is no rhyme in English for orange. Try it.

    • Photo: Tom Hartley

      Tom Hartley answered on 17 Jun 2010:

      If a banana was called yellow, then what would you call a lemon?

      I expect you’re just kidding, but I find that quite a lot of people have questions about links between words and their meanings. I think this might be because, from our own thoughts, we get the idea that words are the “units” of thinking, and so the words themselves seem very important (philosophers are particularly keen on this idea – I wonder why?) But I think the rather wooly meanings in our brain are what’s really critical, and the words are just labels we use to tell other people about them.

      Words are just sequences of sounds (or letters) that we use as labels so there’s no need for a systematic relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning. In the case of orange it’s OK to have the same word for the colour and the fruit, because you can nearly always tell what someone means by the context.

      People can easily learn new (made up) words – you can teach them in the lab. A colleague of mine at York, Gareth Gaskell does this as part of his research. When you learn a new word similar to one you already know (e.g., “cathedruke”) initially it makes you quicker to recognize “cathedral” as a word, but after a few days you are slower to respond to “cathedral” because “cathedruke” is now a word for you, so there are two words in competition now. Later Gareth and Nicolas Dumay found that this change probably happens during or because of sleep.

      Believe it or not I wrote a much longer answer, but I decided it might bore you (too late?), but there’s a lot more I could say about this topic. For example, there are ways in which words sounds are related to their meaning – but I would argue these are exceptions, rather than the rule.

    • Photo: Stephen Curry

      Stephen Curry answered on 17 Jun 2010:

      I really liked this question – a great excuse to chase down the origins of the words!

      The word for orange the fruit appears to derive from India and the sanskrit word nāraṅgaḥ, which by way of many modifications (e.g. arancia in Spanish) became ‘orange’ in the English language.

      The word for the colour orange appears to derive from the fruit. I’m wondering if that’s because there weren’t to many other natural objects that were the same colour?

      The word banana is of African origin because that’s where the fruit come from. So when they came to Europe and England, the name came along (as with oranges). By then (about the middle ages), there was already a word for yellow. The first recorded use of the word yellow (or ‘geolwe’) appears to come in the ancient poem Beowulf (written in about 1000 AD).

      Thanks for posing this question – fascinating (my question of the day!) – all info courtesy of Wikipedia!

    • Photo: Pete Edwards

      Pete Edwards answered on 18 Jun 2010:

      I’m not sure my knowledge of English is up to giving you a decent answer but on the colour theme – how come a brown cow eats green grass but produces white milk?

    • Photo: Marieke Navin

      Marieke Navin answered on 22 Jun 2010:

      what would you call a lemon?