Brace yourselves: mandarins aren’t quite oranges.
Yes, mandarins aren’t quite oranges, and reality is a lie.
Question: What do Chinese imperial officials, a French priest, and a Moroccan port all have in common?
Is the answer ‘oranges’? No.
Is it some sort of politically incorrect punchline? No.
The correct answer is ‘mandarins’.
Mandarins, photographed by Scott Liddell.
But what’s the difference? What about satsumas and tangerines? What about clementines? Why do we have all these names for orange coloured fruit, and where do they come from?
For that to become clear, it’s worth taking a look at classification.
All trees for the fruit mentioned so far belong to the genus Citrus, which they share with lemons, limes, and grapefruits. There are two groups of orange tree: those with sweet fruit (Citrus sinensis), and those with sour (Citrus aurantium).
Popular types from the first group include Jaffa, Valencia, and blood oranges. Perhaps the best-known members of the second are Seville oranges, which famously go into making marmalade.
(This is actually bergamot marmalade, made by Leslie Seaton. See below for more on bergamots!)
Mandarin trees form a separate group of their own, classified as Citrus reticulata. Their sweet, flatter fruits peel and segment more easily than oranges. Clementines, tangerines, and satsumas are all types of mandarin.
They may be directly classified as Citrus reticulata, or by their respective names of Citrus clementina, Citrus tangerina, and Citrus unshiu. It all depends on which botanist you follow. (The discipline of Citrus classification is more complicated than you or I might ever imagine, innocently making the most of ‘two-for-one on tangerines’ in the fruit aisle…)
Fruits from this genus have been successfully crossbred many times, resulting in a crop of colourful names. The offspring of tangerines and sweet oranges are known as tangors. What do you get if you cross lemons with mandarins? Lemandarins. As if the name of some new celebrity couple, a mix between tangerines and grapefruits is called a tangelo, while a lemon and sweet orange hybrid is known as a lemonage.
That last name sounds less like a type of fruit and more like a term for some kind of action or state. I offer two suggestions:
The act of being splattered with lemons.
E.g. ‘There was some crazy lemonage going on in the canteen yesterday!’
A heightened state of appreciation for the flavours of lemony foods and drinks.
E.g. ‘A few bites of those cheesecake tartlets had them joined in holy lemonage.’
Kindly pause to marvel at this lemonage-inducing lemon cheesecake tartlet, made by Kirsten Loza.
Used in flavouring Earl and Lady Grey teas, bergamots are a particular hybrid of sour oranges, possibly with a species of lime. Sweet limes (Citrus limetta) also give off the smell of bergamot oil, which has led people to incorrectly refer to them as bergamots (how very dare they).
Thanks once again to Leslie Seaton for this image.
All this naming conveniently leads back to the earlier question of where the different terms for orange-coloured fruit come from. This looks like a job for the Oxford English Dictionary…
The orange originally comes from China and north-east India, where it has been grown for well over 2,000 years. In the classical Indian language of Sanskrit, the tree was known as naranga, which became narang in Persian, and naranj in Arabic.
Sour oranges were introduced to Europe in the eleventh century by Arab trade, giving rise to a range of Mediterranean names. This included laranja in Portuguese, naranja in Spanish, and naranza/narancia/arancia in regional varieties of Italian. Arancia eventually developed to give orenge/orange in Middle French.
Naranga, written in the Devanagari script used for Sanskrit.
The gradual dropping of that first letter ‘n’ in Italian and French may have occurred due to the use of indefinite articles (una/une) in those languages: una arancia slips more smoothly off the tongue than una narancia (you’re trying it, aren’t you?). The change of ‘ar’ to ‘or’ in French might have been influenced by the town of Orange in south-east France, or by the Old French word or, meaning ‘gold’, as if to describe the colour of the fruit.
(Incidentally, the toponym Orange developed from Aranche, a corruption of Arausio – the Latin name by which the place was known to the Ancient Romans. No fruit trading involved.)
Present-day Orange in Vaucluse, France. Taken by Jean-Louis Zimmermann.
Portuguese traders brought sweet oranges to Europe from China or India in the sixteenth century, which is also when the first use of orange as a colour has been recorded. They came to be known as China oranges in Britain, while normal oranges were sour. China was lost over time with the growing popularity of the sweet variety.
It is possible to see a historical distinction in Modern Greek terms for the fruit: a portokali (‘Portuguese’) is sweet, and a nerantzi is sour. As a matter of fact, several languages from around the Black Sea and the Middle East maintain the Portuguese connection. We have portakal in Turkish, p’ort’oxali in Georgian, and burtuqal in Arabic, to give a few examples.
(Just to jump back to classification for a brief moment: Naranga is also a genus of moth from Sri Lanka and South India, which appears to have been first described in 1881 by British entomologist Frederic Moore. Take a look at the colour of this Naranga aenescens…)
From around the sixteenth century onwards, China’s guan, senior officials of the civil service, were known to Europeans as mandarins. The term came from the Malay word menteri, ultimately from the Sanskrit mantri, meaning ‘counsellor’. It was first used to refer to the Chinese officers by the Portuguese.
Swedish explorer Pehr Osbeck’s 1757 work Dagbok Öfwer en Ostindisk Resa Åren gives the earliest recorded use of the term in reference to fruit. This was translated into English as A Voyage to China and the East Indies in 1771 by J. R. Forster, who used the same word:
‘Here are two sorts of China oranges (Citrus sinensis). The first is that called the Mandarin-orange, whose peel is quite loose, and the Chinese call them Kamm, and it is the best kind.’
The front page of Forster’s 1771 translation (left), with the mandarin description (right). Found via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Why this title for civil servants was applied to fruit is a slight mystery. One commonly given reason is that it was after their yellowy-orange silk robes, thought this has not been confirmed.
The Oxford English Dictionary highlights an alternative explanation which is ‘perhaps more likely’: Osbeck comments that the fruit is ‘the best kind’ of China orange, which suggests that it may have been called a mandarin as the name ‘carries connotations of choiceness’, given its primary application to high-ranking officials. However likely, this too is speculation.
As John Ayto points out in The Diner’s Dictionary, these are named after French missionary Clément Rodier, who bred them (supposedly by accident) around the year 1900 at the Pères du Saint-Esprit orphanage in Misserghin, Algeria. Clémentine was suggested by botanist Louis Trabut, who also determined that the fruit was the hybrid result of crossing tangerines with Seville oranges. Authorities from the 1960s onwards have argued that it is in fact a type of Canton mandarin. The name remains unchanged.
Something which comes from or is associated with the Moroccan port of Tangier may be described as being ‘tangerine’, as in this early example given by the Oxford English Dictionary:
‘An old Tangereen Captain with a Wooden Leg.’
Joseph Addison, Tatler, No. 250 (1710).
Such was the case with mandarins imported to Britain from this location in the 1840s, and the adjective was gradually adopted as a noun.
A game of football at the modern port of Tangier. Photograph by Davidlohr Bueso.
Satsumas are named after Satsuma Province (known now as Kagoshima Prefecture), located on Kyushu Island, Japan. The term was apparently first used in this context by Anna van Valkenburgh, wife of the then American minister to Japan, on introducing the fruit to the United States in the late 1800s.
Prior to this, satsuma was also used in English to describe a specific type of earthenware from the same area. In modern Japanese, the fruit is known as unshiu, corrupted from Wenchow, the old Chinese province from which it is held to have come. Ask for satsuma-imo in Japan today and you’ll be given a different orange crop to chow down: a sweet potato.
Satsuma ware from 1800-1850: a tea storage jar with a paulownia and thunder pattern. Image courtesy of LACMA Collections Online.
Nothing like a bit of name history to clear up things. Those of you who have somehow become more confused and are now unable to differentiate between plants and animals (let alone Citrus varieties), take the following as starting advice:
Question: How do you tell the difference between a walrus and an orange?
Answer: Grab hold and squeeze. If you don’t get orange juice, it’s a walrus.