Nature June 2014

Orange by any other name

From our school history lessons many of us might recall Nell Gwyn as a mistress of Charles II. History also records that the reason that she came to the attention of the Monarch was her occupation as a fruit-seller or more accurately ‘orange wench’. The oranges, which she purveyed were much smaller and sweater than the orange we are familiar with today. They were on sale priced 6d each at the King’s Theatre, where Nell plied her trade and came to the attention of Charles. They were known colloquially as ‘a chinese’; a reference to the geographic origins of the fruit trees which had been grown in special walled gardens in China since 2,500 BC.

The Spanish or Portuguese had brought the first oranges (or ‘naranges’ to be more accurate) to Europe from China around the 15th century. Somewhere along the way the ‘n’ was lost in translation and the first use found in English was of the word Orange referring only to the fruit. It would be another hundred or so years before the word was also used to describe the colour. Prior to this when wanting to describe the colour orange either the word red or yellow might have been used or alternately the Old English word geoluread which in modern English means ‘yellow-red’ or if a darker hue the OE equivalent of ‘red-yellow’.

The consequence of this late arrival of the word orange in our language has been that it was not available at the time when the vast majority of our plants and animals were being described and named for the first time. It does not take too long when hunting through the names of our British wildlife to find some examples to prove this point. The Red Fox has strong associations with Celtic customs and religious ceremonies including a common familiar for witches called Rufus meaning ‘red-haired’. The red squirrel, which has become an icon for British species under threat is these days restricted to a number of coniferous forest and island enclaves. The pelt of the red squirrel was much sort after in the Middle Ages as a lining for cloaks and known as ‘vair’ is also important in heraldic nomenclature being depicted on shields.

Amongst the bird community the most obvious misnomer is the Robin Redbreast. An anthology of the Robin in religion and folklore provides associations with Jesus Christ, whose blood was spilt on the robin’s breast and in Norse mythology it was a storm bird associated with the blood and thunder of the God Thor. The sobriquet ‘redbreast’ and robin was subsequently applied to a wide selection of unrelated species when naming other bird species emblazoned with a distinctive breast colour, such as the American robin whose breast plumage is even more orange than its cousin the European robin. Other birds with a misleading names include the Common Redstart, the male of which uses its bright orange tail-feathers in territorial displays and the red-crested Pochard, an example of waterfowl with bright orange plumage on the head and neck. And lest we forget one of our local birds of prey the Red Kite has orange rather than red tail-feathers!

Looking for insects I was convinced the Red Admiral had red colouration but no, rather than red it has deep orange flashes! So what of the Large Red Damselfly oft seen darting and loitering near ponds around here? Wrong again, it has a bright orange articulated abdomen.

Right at the outset I knew there was at least one example of an animal species labelled ‘orange’ and though I trawled through several tomes I could not find any others. I stand to be corrected but the Orange Tip Butterfly has the distinction of being the only British plant or animal to include orange in its name. (Only the male displays the orange colouration). However, even this example may be more to do with a tribute to Prince William of the Netherlands and the House of Orange for which there is a wholly separate derivation of the word ‘orange’. A group of closely-related butterflies were probably all given the name ‘The Prince of Orange Butterfly’. Around 1750 it was properly identified as a separate species, its name shortened to Orange Tip, and was given a defined scientific name by the Swedish Biologist and father of Taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus. Amongst British wild flowers I also drew a blank. To be honest there are very few British wild flowers which are orange, but for the one or two examples I noticed rather than ‘red’, ‘yellow’ has been substituted to describe flowering plants with orange flowers, for example, the Yellow Horned Poppy. Turning to the exotic world of the lichens they also obliged with a ubiquitous variety to be found on trees and stones called the Common Orange Lichen, which was another one first described by Linnaeus. So what brought about a change? By the 18th century the word orange as a colour description had been adopted. It is also not a coincidence that Kew Gardens which was established in 1759 quickly became the dominant institution for identifying new species brought back by plant hunters from the expeditions to every corner of the rapidly expanding British Empire. So orange became part of the botanical nomenclature for newly discovered plants around the world.

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