Some citrus terms in Sinitic: today and in the past

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From the time I started learning Chinese more than half a century ago, I had a hard time lining up the many Chinese terms for different types of citrus with the corresponding words in English.   For example, I always wanted to call oranges "júzi 橘子", but it is technically (botanically) more correct to call them "chéngzi 橙子".  As for what júzi 橘子 should be called in English, they are, well, "mandarins" or "mandarin oranges".  Ahem!  As L said in this comment several years ago, "…in NZ, any small, peelable orange is a mandarin! And would never be considered an orange."  (From "Really?!" [12/27/16]).

Then there are tangerines, clementines (cuties), and satsumas, just among closely related varieties of citrus fruits, and I won't begin to get into grapefruit, pomelo, yuzu, citron, bergamot, kumquat, tangelo, kabosu, orangelo, hyuganatsu, rangpur, sudachi, kawachi bankan, etc., etc., and dozens of other types.  My old friend, the late Elling Eide (1935-2012), a specialist on Li Bo (701-762) had a grove on his estate in Sarasota, Florida where he cultivated about fifty different types of citrus fruits.  What a joy it was to walk through the grove and sample tree-ripened mandarins, tangerines, clementines, grapefruits, pomelos, and all manner of other citrus to satiety!

Be it should be noted that Elling could have all that richness of citrus because Sarasota has a humid subtropical climate bordering a tropical savanna climate, with an average of only one frost per year and rarely drops below freezing (which nonetheless always concerned Elling greatly).

But now we must turn to the main thrust of this post, which is a discussion of the etymology of gān 柑, another name for mandarin(e) (orange), often appearing in the disyllabic form gānjú 柑桔, which includes several closely related subspecies.

Chris Button writes:

Jú 橘 has a well-attested Mon-Khmer origin, but people have struggled to find a likely southern origin for gān 柑 despite the likelihood of it not being native vocabulary. I wonder if the variant spelling jīnjú 金*橘 of gānjú 柑橘 gives us a clue there? The etymological association of gold with oranges seems well-attested (even down to folk-etymologies like the "or" in "orange"), and so perhaps gān 柑 is simply representing the color of jīn 金?

*VHM:  jīn 金 ("gold")

I'm doubtful about the validity of this line of reasoning, since jīnjú 金橘 is actually a different fruit, namely, kumquat.

[Cantonese gam1 gwat1; akin to Mandarin jīnjú : jīn, gold (from Middle Chinese kim) + , mandarin orange (from Middle Chinese kjyt; probably akin to Khmer kwic).]

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition

It is also referred to as jīngān 金柑.

By itself, gān 柑 is usually understood as referring to mandarin(e) or tangerine.

Either the same etymon as (OC *kaːm, “sweet”) (Wang, 1982), or, in light of the citrus fruit's southern origin, possibly connected with Austroasiatic; compare Proto-Mon-Khmer *lŋaam (Schuessler, 2007).


Something about that seemed not quite right, so I wrote to Axel Schuessler, asking him:

For 柑, Wiktionary cites you thus:

in light of the citrus fruit's southern origin, possibly connected with Austroasiatic; compare Proto-Mon-Khmer *lŋaam (Schuessler, 2007).

But in the printed edition of your book (p. 249) you have this:

because of its southern origin, 'orange' may be connected with AA, note PNB *qŋam 'sweet'.

What's going on here?  Has Wiktionary misquoted you?  And what does "PNB" mean?  I can't find it in your lists of abbreviations.

Axel wrote back:

Both are right. Shorto’s “A Mon-Khmer comparative dictionary” 2006, #1322 has *lŋaam ‘sweet’, my Proto-North-Bahnaric source at that time (Kenneth Smith 1972) had *qŋam ‘sweet’, Shorto #1322 *ʔŋa:m ‘sweet’. Today, I would delete this part from my dictionary, phonetically too much of a stretch. And if the orange is indeed derived from ’sweet’, the ST source would explain it just as well.

Shorto 2006 came out too late for me to consider back then; the P-North-Bahnaric form of Smith looked close to Chinese, especially considering Cantonese; but now I think one should primarily rely on Shorto 2006 (edited and published by Sidwell).

Had I been aware of the Proto-MK form *lŋaam, I would never have suggested a connection with Chinese. 

As for the etymology of jú 橘 ("tangerine"):

Unknown. Schuessler (2007) connected (OC kwit) to ឃ្វិច (khvɨc, tangerine) and also deemed as "less likely" connections to ក្រូច (krouc, citrus) and ProtoHreSedang *kruč (Bodman, 1980). However, Alves (2018) considered the Old Chinese word's Austroasiatic origin likely, and compared it to Proto-Mon-Khmer *kruuc ~ kruəc.


Regarding the relationship between 橘 and 桔, both pronounced jú and both referring to mandarin(e)s:

was included as the simplified form of in the second round of simplification in 1977. The current standard in Mainland China, the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters (通用规范汉字表), does not mention that is a simplification of . A Dictionary of Current Chinese (现代汉语词典) and the Xinhua Dictionary (新华字典) list as a separate entry from (unlike other variants, which are usually put beside the main character in parentheses) and define as a common variant for , while Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian (现代汉语规范词典) proscribes the use of as the simplified form of .

In Cantonese, is generally used for gat1, while is used for gwat1. [VHM:  both mean "tangerine", though the latter may also mean "orange".]


If we think the etymology of citrus terms in Chinese is convoluted, check out that for English "orange":

If we trace the origin of the English word orange from its source, we follow the path of the fruit as its popularity expands from Asia to Europe. The ultimate origins of the word lie in the Dravidian language family, a family of languages spoken in South Asia that includes Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu. The modern Tamil word for an orange, for example, is nāram, and in ancient times, a Dravidian word similar to this was adopted into the Indo-European language Sanskrit as nāraṅgaḥ. As the fruit passed westward from India, so did the word for it, becoming Persian nārang and Arabic nāranj. The Arabs brought the first oranges to Spain and Sicily between the 8th and 10th centuries, and from there the popularity of the fruit spread throughout Europe. The Arabic word is the source of Old Italian arancio, "orange tree," and this word was compounded with Old Italian mela, "apple," to make melarancio, referring to the fruit of the orange tree. Old Italian melarancio was translated into Old French as pume d'orenge, "apple of the orange tree." The a in the Old Italian word was replaced by o in Old French due to the influence of the name of the town of Orange (from which oranges reached the northern part of France) and possibly also due to the influence of the Old French word or, "gold" (by association with the rich color of the fruit). In the final stage in the journey of the word, the Old French form was borrowed into Middle English, at first spelled orenge in a text dating from around 1400. The English word orange begins to be used to designate the color orange in the 16th century.

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition


Selected readings


  1. Chris Button said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 4:37 pm

    @ Victor Mair

    I'm doubtful about the validity of this line of reasoning, since jīnjú 金橘 is actually a different fruit, namely, kumquat.

    I'm not suggesting that kumquats are the same as oranges. Rather, I'm suggesting that maybe the word represented by 柑 *kám "orange" is etymologically related to the word represented by 金 *kə̀m "gold" (it was just the variant spelling 金橘 for 柑橘 that started me thinking along those lines). The semantic shift is entirely plausible from a comparative perspective in terms of the "golden fruit".

    Personally, I'm dubious about the "sweet" connection–internal or external. Why oranges in particular? I think the phonetic 甘 in 柑 is misleading in that regard.

  2. James-Henry Holland said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 4:55 pm

    柚子 (yòuzi) in a Chinese context apparently refers to grapefruit, but in a Japanese context, it is read as yuzu, and it is a yellow ping-pong ball sized fruit prized for its distinct fragrance. I know this "yuzu" fruit is also culturally important in Korean culture, but I don't know what it is called there.

  3. Boris said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 5:12 pm

    In hebrew orange is "tapuz", which is an acronym for "tapuah zahav" or golden apple.
    In russian, orange is "апельсин", which speaks for itself..

  4. Chris C. said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 5:19 pm

    This is far more snarky than insightful, but what is it about French where ever new bit of fleshy produce becomes some kind of apple?

  5. cameron said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 9:27 pm

    The terminology of citrus fruit around the world is probably as tangled as the botany. The varieties grown today are hybrids and hybrids of hybrids, and hybrids of hybrids of hybrids, etc. Botanists debate as to what the foundational species of all the selective breeding and hybridization were like and where they were found.

    As cited in the OP, the English and French "orange" has as one of its etymological ancestors the Persian nārang. But in Persian today the word nārangi refers not to an orange, but to a tangerine (nārangi is, however, the name for the color orange in Persian). Persian is one of the many languages that refers to oranges with a word referring to the country of Portugal, the word in Persian is portuqāl. So, while the word "orange" migrated from east to west, when the hybrid that we call "orange" in English migrated back eastward, it needed a new word.

  6. John Swindle said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 9:30 pm

    Whereas Spanish in borrowing the word from Arabic kept the initial n-.

  7. Alexander Browne said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 9:43 pm


    As I understood it, the (sweet) orange didn't move eastward, it moved westward from China, but first brought by Portuguese traders, including to Persia. Here's how Wikipedia puts it (

    "Sweet oranges have a distinct origin from the bitter orange, which arose independently, perhaps in the wild, from a cross between pure mandarin and pomelo parents."


    "Citrus fruits — among them the bitter orange — were introduced to Sicily in the 9th century during the period of the Emirate of Sicily, but the sweet orange was unknown until the late 15th century or the beginnings of the 16th century, when Italian and Portuguese merchants brought orange trees into the Mediterranean area."

  8. David said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 12:04 am

    In the absence of a more in-depth search, a Baidu entry cites Li Shizhen’s Compendium of Materia Medica, where 柑 is distinguished from 橘, so I am somewhat doubtful whether 柑 has its origins in 甘 (“sweet” – On a side note, 甘 and 甜 do not mean the same to me even though they both translate to sweet.) 柑橘 is supposedly the broader grouping for mandarin oranges.


    陳皮 Chenpi (preserved tangerine?/mandarin?peel) is a preferred snack and cooking ingredient of mine, made from 大紅柑 peel. Xinhui in Guangdong province in China is best known for producing high quality Chenpi.

  9. Hans Adler said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 2:16 am

    Regarding the possible occurrence of 'sweet' in a term for citrus fruits: This seems to make perfect sense to me as a relative description. In a culture that uses a lot of citrus fruits even though they are too bitter or too sour for regular unprocessed eating, a new variety that is less bitter or less sour and has the remaining bitterness/sourness tempered by sweetness is likely to become popular very quickly and may well be referred to as something like 'the sweet ones'.

    Digression on linguistic methods and human culture beyond language:

    I am not a linguist, but this particular mechanism became very obvious to me when I once cleaned up and systematized Wikipedia pages on card games. A large number of card games today is named after a specific feature that was once a popular addition to an earlier game. Often the earlier game has fallen out of use and the feature has become standard. But sometimes the special feature has since been replaced by a new one without changing the game's name, so that some card games are named after features they no longer have.

    By the way, there is unfortunately very little research on the evolution of card games available. I found very little of value outside some historical card game collections, the publications of David Parlett, and John McLeod's website What I did find there suggested to me that card game rules (not just card game names) would be a valuable domain for research using the methods of linguistics. Much the same thing can be said for the research domain of historical units of weight and measurement (unit names, subdivision principles, absolute values).

    One thing that card games and units of measurements have in common with genetics is the founder effect and the principle that diversity is greatest in the region of origin. For example, the diversity of pre-metric units of weight referred to as 'pound' was greatest in Italy, where it originates, just like the diversity of card games in which the Jacks are special trumps is greatest in Germany. I guess linguistic methods could profit from the insight from application to these other domains.

  10. Peter Taylor said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 2:55 am

    @Chris C, English does the same. Sense 2a of OED is

    Frequently with distinguishing word: any of various fruits (and vegetables), esp. those thought to resemble the apple (sense 1) in some way; any of the plants producing such a fruit (or vegetable).

    The obvious example in English is pineapple, but the citations in OED include such marvels as custard-apple, a reference to the pomegranate as "Punic apple", and, in scare quotes, a 1930 comment on the "'potato apple'".

  11. Chris Button said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 6:51 am

    @ Hans Adler

    In a culture that uses a lot of citrus fruits even though they are too bitter or too sour for regular unprocessed eating, a new variety that is less bitter or less sour and has the remaining bitterness/sourness tempered by sweetness is likely to become popular very quickly and may well be referred to as something like 'the sweet ones'.

    That's an interesting point. However, mandarins are naturally sweet. It's always best if we can find support for an etymology through comparative support. A connection of 金 *kə̀m "gold" with 柑 *kám seems well attested cross-linguistically. A connection of 甘 "sweet" with 柑 isn't.

    @ David

    On a side note, 甘 and 甜 do not mean the same to me even though they both translate to sweet.

    That's a good point from a historical perspective too. 甜 is related to things like 恬 "tranquil" (compare "doux" in French). Meanwhile 甘 is related to things like 含 "hold in mouth"

  12. Victor Mair said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 7:31 am


    Many good comments on the predominant role of "apple" in the names of other fruits in various languages. Is it because the apple is the primordial fruit (as in the Bible [Genesis 2:16–17])? But not so fast! Although in western Europe the "forbidden fruit" is generally depicted as an apple, that is not the case in other traditions:


    The word fruit appears in Hebrew as פֶּ֫רִי (pərî ). As to which fruit may have been the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, possibilities include apple, grape, pomegranate, fig, carob, etrog or citron, pear, and mushrooms. The pseudepigraphic Book of Enoch describes the tree of knowledge: "It was like a species of the Tamarind tree, bearing fruit which resembled grapes extremely fine; and its fragrance extended to a considerable distance. I exclaimed, How beautiful is this tree, and how delightful is its appearance!" (1 Enoch 31:4).

    In Islamic tradition, the fruit is commonly either identified with wheat or with grapevine.

    In Western Europe, the fruit was often depicted as an apple. This was possibly because of a misunderstanding of – or a pun on – mălum, a native Latin noun which means evil (from the adjective malus), and mālum, another Latin noun, borrowed from Greek μῆλον, which means apple. In the Vulgate, Genesis 2:17 describes the tree as de ligno autem scientiae boni et mali : "but of the tree [literally wood ] of knowledge of good and evil" (mali here is the genitive of malum).

    The larynx, specifically the laryngeal prominence that joins the thyroid cartilage, in the human throat is noticeably more prominent in males and was consequently called an Adam's apple, from a notion that it was caused by the forbidden fruit getting stuck in Adam's throat as he swallowed it.


  13. Alexander Browne said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 7:51 am

    Middle English dictionaries I've seen list something like "any fruit" for the primary sense of "appel". For example, from, sense 1(a) is "Any kind of fruit growing on a tree, shrub, or vine, such as an apple, crab apple, pear, peach, citron, banana, haw, berry, cucumber; also, a nut, a tuber", while sense 2 is "An apple".

  14. Victor Mair said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 8:13 am

    @Alexander Browne

    Thank you very much for the meaning of "appel" as "any fruit" in Middle English.


    [Middle English appel, from Old English æppel.]

    American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition 2016

    [Old English æppel; related to Old Saxon appel, Old Norse apall, Old High German apful]

    Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014

    [before 900; Middle English; Old English æppel, c. Old Frisian appel, Old Saxon apl, appul, Old High German apful, Crimean Gothic apel]

    Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary 2010


    Old English æppel "apple; any kind of fruit; fruit in general," from Proto-Germanic *ap(a)laz (source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Dutch appel, Old Norse eple, Old High German apful, German Apfel), from PIE *ab(e)l- "apple" (source also of Gaulish avallo "fruit;" Old Irish ubull, Lithuanian obuolys, Old Church Slavonic jabloko "apple"), but the exact relation and original sense of these is uncertain (compare melon).

    A roted eppel amang þe holen, makeþ rotie þe yzounde. ["Ayenbite of Inwit," 1340]

    In Middle English and as late as 17c., it was a generic term for all fruit other than berries but including nuts (such as Old English fingeræppla "dates," literally "finger-apples;" Middle English appel of paradis "banana," c. 1400). Hence its grafting onto the unnamed "fruit of the forbidden tree" in Genesis. Cucumbers, in one Old English work, are eorþæppla, literally "earth-apples" (compare French pomme de terre "potato," literally "earth-apple;" see also melon). French pomme is from Latin pomum "apple; fruit" (see Pomona).

    As far as the forbidden fruit is concerned, again, the Quran does not mention it explicitly, but according to traditional commentaries it was not an apple, as believed by Christians and Jews, but wheat. ["The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity," Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2002]

    From Online Etymology Dictionary


    The word "apple", formerly spelled æppel in Old English, is derived from the Proto-Germanic root *ap(a)laz, which could also mean fruit in general. This is ultimately derived from Proto-Indo-European *ab(e)l-, but the precise original meaning and the relationship between both words is uncertain.

    As late as the 17th century, the word also functioned as a generic term for all fruit other than berries but including nuts—such as the 14th century Middle English word appel of paradis, meaning a banana.[4] This use is analogous to the French language use of pomme.


  15. David Marjanović said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 10:27 am

    In russian, orange is "апельсин", which speaks for itself..

    See also northern German Apfelsine and Dutch sinaasappel.

  16. OvV said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 11:25 am

    The Dutch Etymologiebank has quite a lot of info.
    See for instance:

  17. Judith A. Lerner said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 12:22 pm

    It's possible that I missed something similar in all the interesting responses to this post, but in Persian, the sour orange (so deliciously a part of Persian cuisine) is naranj, نارنج, while the sweet orange is portugāl پرتقال

  18. Nat said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 2:35 pm

    “Apple of paradise” is delightful and deserving of resurrection. Though the fruit itself may have its days numbered.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 3:25 pm

    From Pardis Minuchehr:

    In Persian, Naranj is a sour citrus fruit that is found mainly in the Caspian region. For mandarins, Persians also use Narangi, but for some reason the word for orange is Portoqal, which is not etymologically related.

  20. Bob Ladd said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 4:38 pm

    Calling new fruits some kind of apple happened in Latin,too. The original Latin term for 'peach' was mala persica ('Persian apple'). In the form persica or pessica this is the source of French pêche (from which the English word) but also German Pfirsich, which was borrowed into Germanic directly from Latin.

  21. Tom said,

    July 13, 2020 @ 12:55 am

    Relatedly, I've wondered why, in English, our term for loquat derives from Cantonese (lou4 gwat1 盧橘) rather than the more common pipa 琵琶 (Canto: pei4 paa4).

  22. Victor Mair said,

    July 13, 2020 @ 7:52 am


    The characters you gave (pípá / pípa 琵琶) are for the stringed musical instrument called "pipa" or "balloon lute".

    Japanese biwa

    Vietnamese đàn tỳ bà

    Korean bipa

    The homophonous word for the fruit (loquat, not a type of citrus) is pípá 枇杷, written with wood semantophores, not jade as for the instrument.

    Selected readings

    "Awesome foods" (2/23/15)

    "GA" (8/6/17)

    "Implications of the Soviet Dungan Script for Chinese Language Reform" ( 1990)

    "The Shōsōin Repository and its treasure", by Mariachiara Gasparini

    Heleanor Feltham, “Lions, Silks and Silver: The Influence of Sasanian Persia,” Victor H. Mair, editor, Sino-Platonic Papers, 2010.

  23. Tom said,

    July 13, 2020 @ 10:34 am

    @Victor Mair
    Yes, I know. Just shows I should’ve checked my phone’s input before hitting “submit” on that comment.

    My question, though, is why we use a version of 盧橘 in English, when even my Cantonese friends refer to it by a version of 枇杷. The former must have been the more common term whenever it was borrowed into English. Just an idle thought I had as I was browsing the comments on this post.

    Wikipedia suggests that the fruit pipa 枇杷 is actually named after the instrument pipa 琵琶. I haven’t looked into this at all. There’s probably a fu 賦 or an Edward Schafer footnote that would set the record straight.

  24. Eric said,

    July 13, 2020 @ 1:16 pm

    @Tom, I would guess that the term entered English via Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, who were mainly from Guangdong. Like many immigrant communities, their version of the language is frozen in time and is old-fashioned and out-of-date to their modern counterparts in the old country.

    I'm reminded of how “telephone” in modern Chinese is diànhuà (Mandarin) or dinwaa (Cantonese), from denwa (Japanese), 電話 "electric voice"–but some Chinese were already in America when the new machine was invented, and they called it hom sien, 喊線 “screaming wire".

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