Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

Tag: fruit

Citrus Fruit

A Scurvy History

Shiver me timbers! I seem to have completely missed out on ‘International Talk Like a Pirate Day’, which took place last weekend: that intriguing observance celebrated every 19 September since 2002, which started out as a joke among some American friends and has gone on to pick up followers worldwide.

(Correction: ‘gone on to pick up crew’. Incidentally, today is Google’s 17th Birthday, but I digress…)

Pirate GuysThe founders of International Talk Like a Pirate Day:  Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers (left) and John “Ol’ Chumbucket” Baur (right). Photo by Karl Maasdam, Karl Maasdam Photography; taken from the official website. The fruity featured image for this article is taken from Flickr user Peter Batty.

This got me thinking about scurvy – ‘Avast, scurvy curs!’ having first popped into my head, of course. Individuals deficient in Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) are unable to produce the protein collagen, which makes up bodily tissues like skin, bone, cartilage, and blood vessels. These begin to break down, resulting in fatigue, pain in muscles and joints, red dotting of skin, and most recognisably, swollen, bleeding gums.

Now notorious as a scourge of seafarers – who would run out of Vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables while travelling – scurvy has in fact been recognised for thousands of years. A description of what is believed to be the disease occurs in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, dated to 1550 BCE; onion consumption is apparently given as the cure. The Indian surgeon Sushruta of the 6th century BCE wrote of a condition known as sitada, where ‘the gums of the teeth suddenly bleed and become putrefied, black, slimy and emit a fetid smell. They become soft and gradually slough off’. Similar symptoms were touched on by the Greek physician Hippocrates a century or two later:

‘[…] the patient smells foully from the mouth, the gums separate from his teeth, and blood flows from his nostrils. Sometimes also ulcers break out on his legs – and while some heal, others develop – his colour is dark, and his skin is thin; the patient is eager to walk about and to exert himself.’

Hippocrates, Internal Affections, translated by Paul Potter.

Sushruta-SamhitaSections of the Sushruta-Samhita. This is a 12th or 13th century Nepalese copy written on palm leaves; the watercolour imagery was added in the 18th or 19th century. From LACMA Collections Online.

Following Hippocrates and several other ancient writers, the next mention of what can be identified as scurvy occurred during the Crusades. The majority of nautical references came with the Age of Discovery, when explorers from the 15th century found the disease to be a serious and widespread cause of injury and death on their ships. This period saw the use of the term ‘scorbie’ and ‘scurvie’ as a name for the illness; the word was earlier used as an adjective for someone covered in ‘scurf’: scaly or scabby skin.

The journal of Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India describes how his men ‘fell ill […], their feet and hands swelling, and their gums growing over their teeth, so that they could not eat’. The same work gives a record of a fruity remedy called for when the crew dropped anchor off the coast of Malindi (now in Kenya):

‘The captain-major sent a man on shore with these messengers with instructions to bring off a supply of oranges, which were much desired by our sick. These he brought on the following day, as also other kinds of fruit; but our sick did not much profit by this, for the climate affected them in such a way that many of them died here.’

A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499, translated by E. G. Ravenstein (1898).

Vasco_da_Gama_(Livro_de_Lisuarte_de_Abreu)A portrait of Vasco da Gama from Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu (c. 1565). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Two-thirds of da Gama’s men were lost to scurvy on this voyage. Even so, eating citrus fruits was generally known by sailors to help with recovery from the disease. In 1747, this was clearly demonstrated by Scottish naval surgeon James Lind, who tested different remedies on afflicted sailors, with citrus fruits producing exceptional results. He went on to publish A Treatise of the Scurvy in 1753: a time when more of Britain’s sailors were killed by scurvy than by fighting.

Lind pushed for the Royal Navy to give citrus fruit and juice to its crews, which became standard practice from 1795 onwards. As a result, the disease effectively stopped affecting members of the force. It is also because of this practice that British sailors came to be known as ‘lime-juicers’ or ‘limeys’.

V0003579 James Lind. Stipple engraving by J. Wright after Sir G. ChalA stipple engraving of James Lind by J. Wright, after Sir G. Chalmers (1783). From Wellcome Images.

It was not until Vitamin C was isolated in 1928 that scientists got on their way to definitively establishing it to be the cure – ascorbic’ essentially means ‘not pertaining to scurvy’. Raw fruits and vegetables are now known to be among the top sources of Vitamin C; cooking them leads to a drop in concentration. Oranges, lemons, chillies, broccoli, and many more – take your pick and keep scurvy well away!

Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered why ‘oranges’ are called ‘oranges’…

My Darling Clementine. Mandarin. Orange. HELP.

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 cheap jerseys incorrect punchline? No.
The correct answer is ‘mandarins’.

MandarinsMandarins, 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.

Bergamot 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 Hello 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 Is 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:

lemonage, n.1:
The act of being splattered with lemons.
E.g. ‘There was some crazy lemonage going on in the canteen yesterday!’

lemonage, n.2:
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.’

Lemon Cheesecake TartletKindly 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).

BergamotsThanks 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.

NarangaNaranga, 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 rsquo which the place was known to the Ancient Romans. No fruit trading involved.)

Orange in Vaucluse, FrancePresent-day Orange in Vaucluse, France. Care 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 Grandeur sinensis). The first is that called the Mandarin-orange, whose peel is quite loose, cheap jerseys and the Chinese call them Kamm, and it is the best kind.’

Osbeck's Voyage to China
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.

Football at modern Tangier portA game of football at the modern port of Tangier. Photograph by Davidlohr Bueso.

(Any artistic interpretations (drawing/mixed media/cosplay) of Addison’s ‘Tangereen Captain’ are more than welcome. Share them on the Feast and Phrase Twitter and Facebook pages.)


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 cheap nba jerseys 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 WareSatsuma 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.

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