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Oranges and Bucket Lists: What language can teach us about our world

A movie still from the 2007 film "The Bucket List" starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. (Courtesy Unsplash)
A movie still from the 2007 film "The Bucket List" starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. (Courtesy Unsplash)

This week on Endless Thread, we have two stories about etymology. What can words teach us about culture, trade, memory, and the world around us?

First up: Which “orange” came about first, the fruit or the color? It’s a mystery producer Megan Cattel set out to solve — but not just in the English language. As she recently found out, the word for the citrus fruit and the yellow-red color is the same in many languages: Chinese, Spanish, Thai, Korean, Bangla, Arabic, and Ukrainian, among others. Why is that?

Next, Amory Sivertson explores the history of the term “bucket list” — a saying that is so embedded in our culture, we forget that it was only formally coined 16 years ago.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Amory Sivertson: Hey, producer Megan Cattel.

Megan Cattel: Hi. Host Amory Sivertson. Hello. How are you doing?

Amory: Hello, hello. I'm doing great. I'm really happy to talk to you.

Megan: I'm happy to talk with you too! Because today, Amory, we’re here to talk about oranges.

Amory: So how did this all start? Oranges and you...

Megan: Right. It's, you know, not a topic I usually think about a lot, but it started several months ago with a little nighttime scroll on Instagram, a little bedtime procrastination scroll. Not sure if I should admit that on air.

Amory: Of course you should. We all do it.

Megan: Okay. That makes me feel a little better. I was, I was supposed to be putting away my devices for the night, but I was just scrolling and I saw a post from BuzzFeed's A*pop Instagram account. So this is an Instagram account where they post tidbits about Asian and Asian diaspora culture. And there was a screenshot of a tweet posted by reality TV star and rapper Tim de la Ghetto. And that's not his real name. This is what he tweeted and it was reposted on BuzzFeed A*pop:

“So you know how Orange is the name for the color and the fruit and it's naranja in Spanish for the fruit and the color. Well, it's the same for Thai. Fruit and color are the same name! “Som.” Is it the same for every language? Who decided we're all going to do this?"

My first reaction was, wait, wait. This guy has a point. I never thought about this, but the word for the fruit and the color is the same in Mandarin, too.

Amory: Hmm.

Megan: It's the same word. It's cheng zi. And I was like, I never thought about this before. How it's the same in Spanish, Chinese. I was like, okay, this is, this is a phenomenon which I need to get to the bottom of.

Amory: Can I share an early theory? My, my kind of chicken egg theory is that the color came first and that we call that fruit orange, because that was one of the first things in nature that humans found to be that— well, no, because then we wouldn't have known that that color existed. Okay. I'm already disproving my theory.

Megan: You are on to something. It is very. You know, sometimes we name colors after objects if that color is a bit more unique to nature, like, for example, turquoise. Turquoise, you know, the gemstone and then the blue-green color is also turquoise.

Amory: Yeah! Or lavender.

Megan: Right? Lavender is a good example. So there are other things in nature where it's something a bit more unique. So we name that object first and we name the color from that object. But I do want to go. But before we get to, you know, the reason why Orange is the name for the fruit in the color, because there is a reason. I also just wanted to share with you how I was Amory. I was just DMing this post like crazy to all of my friends who speak a different language just to see, is it the same word? Like I just wanted to. I just wanted to double check and hear from them. So this is what some of them had to say:

Yeji Lee: My name is Yeji. I grew up between Korea and Canada and now live in New York. And I think a lot of Koreans might say just the word orange or “orenji” to refer to both the color as well as the fruit. But actually the word for the color in Korean is “juhwangsaeg.” And the word for fruit is just "orenji."

Nazia Jannat: Hi, my name is Nazia and I am a native New Yorker. I grew up in Queens speaking both Bengali and English at home. Today, I'm here to tell you the word for orange, both the color and the fruit, is the same in Bangla. And the way to say it is “komola”. So that's “komola”, which means both the fruit and the color. And it's funny because it sort of reminds me of the name “Kamala”, which, as you know, is the name of the vice president. But it's komola not Kamala which is funny.

Megan: This is my friend Fatma, who I met in grad school and is originally from Cairo, Egypt.

Fatma Khaled: So the difference between, the between orange, the color, an orange, the fruit in Arabic is that there is no difference in Arabic. The fruit is spelled "burtuqal," and the color is spelled or pronounced "burtoqally". So again, the fruit is pronounced "burtuqal" the color is pronounced "burtoqally". And the only difference is that there is another letter added to the color. And I think the purpose of it is just to differentiate between the fruit and the color, even though that they're the same words.

Amory: Wow. So this really is a phenomenon.

Megan: Yes, this is. Lastly, there was another person in my neighborhood I just had to talk to. He's a friend. He's actually my fiance's best friend. But he's my friend and neighbor from New York.

Bhaskar Ghosh: My full name is Bhaskar Ghosh. I am 34 years old. I am a software engineer and I am from India.

Megan: Okay, but where in India?

Bhaskar: Varanasi, India.

Megan: And like, what is the. Because there are many languages in India. So what language do you speak like, mostly?

Bhaskar: So my mother tongue is Bengali, but I grew up in a province that's where people mostly speak Hindi.

Megan: Okay. So in your hometown, when you want to buy an orange to eat, what? What do you call the fruit?

Bhaskar: Sentara.

Megan: And then what about the color orange?

Bhaskar: That's naarangee.

Megan: Oh, okay. Okay. So that's like the one language I encounter where it's, like, different.

Okay, so at this point, you know, after talking to Bhaskar, I had to do some real research like why Hindi, the words are different? But then for every for a lot of other languages around the world, it's the same word, orange. So, oranges come from China and they also come from India, so its native habitat is from India. And in this 2012 article from Mentalfloss that I found, it's called, "What Came First: The Color Orange or the Fruit?" They said that orange culture spread from India and the east coast of Africa throughout the eastern Mediterranean region through Roman conquest. The development of Arab trade routes and the expansion of Islam contributed significantly to this dispersal. According to the Oxford English Dictionary – so the word naarangee, that Bhasker said in Hindi that came from Sanskrit. Naranga. So from Sanskrit to Hindi, you see that kind of direct correlation. But then the trajectory includes the Persian "naranj" the Arabic "nāranj", and then regional Italian examples like "naranza" and "narans". And then you get into Spanish naranja and then into French "l'orange", and then neurons to English orange. So it's spread from there.

Amory: Okay, So why did the term for the fruit spread but not the other term for the color?

Megan: Well, I tried to piece this together with also some linguistic research. So not just like fruit juice research and trade research, but trying to see the development of English like throughout the centuries. So I learned from other sources, like this website called Lit Hub. Back in a play by Chaucer in the 1390s, a fox color was described as "betwixt yellow and red."

Amory: (Laughs.)

Megan: Yeah. This is for real. So before the 16th and 15th centuries, it was common for a lot of languages around the world, English included, to describe orange as as just a yellow red or a gold red. There was no color for that perfect combo of 50% yellow, 50% red mixed together. It was just, it just wasn't part of the language. It just wasn't part of the culture. So as those trade routes were developing from India throughout the Middle East and they extended into the rest of Europe and oranges were coming more and more common, that's when we just said, hey, we're going to we're going to call this color orange. Like it's not just yellow-red, it's not betwixt yellow and red anymore. And then it'd be called orange.

Amory: And is there like an etymological significance behind that word orange?

Megan: Yes actually, so the original meaning of the word naranga in Sanskrit way back when before oranges were introduced…that word meant perfumed or fragrant. And I guess as oranges came in from China, the fruit smelled so good that they wanted to just call them naranga. And then as the fruit spread from, from India into the rest of Europe, naranga became naranja in Spanish, the word perfumed like lost its meaning and then switched over to the meaning of the fruit orange and from France, “l’orange” into English. You see that connection quite clearly from l’orange to orange, and yeah, do you do you hear what I'm saying?

Amory: Oh yeah! Yes. Okay, So that. You can hear the connection between "l'orange" and "naarangee". Okay, this is coming together beautifully in my brain. "naranja" or it was "naarangee" in Hindi or something.

Megan: Naarangee. Yeah.

Amory: Naarangee. Yeah. And if you say that a certain way, it's like "narange" or "norange." (Laughs.)

Megan: Exactly. You hear that separation, right? And in fact, like we talked about earlier, there's a lot of different specific shades. A lot of languages don't have specific words for colors like magenta or chartreuse or...

Amory: Right, or turquoise or…

Megan: Turquoise. Right. It just kind of spread because there are so few things in nature that have that. That specific shade and perfect combo of yellow and red. So like in English, they just adopted it and said, okay, we're going to call that color orange after the fruit. A lot of other countries followed suit and I guess did the same.

Amory: Well, Megan, this was fascinating. And I'm now craving a, what was the term? Betwixt red and yellow.

Megan: Foxes fur betwixt yellow and red.

Amory: The juice of a betwixt of yellow and red fruit. So I'm going to go do that. And let's take a little break. And then when we come back, I have a story for you about the origin of language.


Amory: Okay, we're back. And Megan, I have another language related story for you. But this one has to do with a particular term that people think has been around forever. And it turns out maybe it was not because nothing has really been around forever. But this really shocked people, including a listener named Amanda Everlove, which is an amazing name, Amanda.

Amanda wrote to us recently and she said, I came across this tweet this morning and immediately had my mind blown. The tweet reads, "No one believes me that the bucket list as a term was not in common usage before that movie came out. But I swear to God, it's true." Megan, are you familiar with this term bucket list?

Megan:  I believe so. Was she talking about that, that movie back about ten years ago? What movie was this?

Amory: Okay, so this was 15, 16 years ago now. It was a movie called The Bucket List came out in 2007. It was directed by Rob Reiner. And it stars Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. Mm hmm. Yep. And they're two guys who meet when they have to share a hospital room and they find out that they both have terminal lung cancer, and then they proceed to go, you know, skydiving together. They ride a motorcycle on the Great Wall of China. They go to the Taj Mahal and Mount Everest, and they go on a safari and so forth and so forth. And so this tweet was written by someone named Kath Barbadoro. Yes, Kath Barbadoro, another great name, tips a hat to this movie as being the origin. And Amanda Everlove writes, "How did a concept so ubiquitous start with a movie that no one has ever even seen?" Have you seen this movie? I'm guessing not because.

Megan: No, I have not seen it. But I just remember, I remember seeing the advertisements on TV and then online. So it was, you know, because, you know, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, I mean, these are legendary actors, so.

Amory: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. It wasn't.

Megan: But I never saw it.

Amory: Yeah, it wasn't like a highly acclaimed film, But as you have hinted at, it was everywhere. It was highly promoted super star power. In it, you probably saw a trailer for it. Amanda goes on in her email to us, "How do I not remember first learning about the concept and instead feel like I've known it my entire life, even though that's demonstrably untrue. Help. So step one, I looked into this tweet from Kath Barbadoro and that really only got me so far because this Twitter account no longer exists. But you can still see the replies to this tweet and the replies talk quite a bit about the trailer for the movie in which Morgan Freeman's character spells out the concept of the bucket list as if this is a brand new concept that no one would have been familiar with before.

(Audio from The Bucket List movie trailer.)

Morgan Freeman: My freshman philosophy professor assigned this exercise and called it a ‘bucket list.’ supposed to make a list of all the things we wanted to do before we kicked the bucket.

Jack Nicholson: Cutesy.

Amory: So this movie. So this movie, The Bucket List, was written by a screenwriter named Justin Zackham. And it was inspired by his very own, what he called List of Things to do Before I Kick the Bucket, which he later shortened to Justin's Bucket List. Much tidier. Megan, Do you want to guess what the first item on Justin's bucket list was?

Megan: Um...go skydiving?

Amory: Yes. Fair. Good guess. In his case as a screenwriter, it was to have a movie made by a major Hollywood studio. Oh.

Megan: Whoa.

Amory: Meta, right.

Megan: It happened.

Amory: So the term has been around for at least six years because that's when the movie came out in 2007. And although that's not as long as most people would have thought. It's gotten a lot of play during that time. And across a wide swath of the culture, including politics. President Obama member. President Obama memorably used the term at the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner.

Barack Obama: My advisers have been asking me if I have a bucket list and I don't, but I do have something that rhymes with bucket list. (Applause.)

Amory: So my you know, one kind of theory is just that it's had a great 16 years. Like, it's just it's really spread across the culture and infiltrated, you know, politics and music and every other kind of corner of culture.

Megan: Yeah, I feel like every time I go on Instagram or Tik Tok, I get those "Bucket list destinations when that you should go to in Japan." Or, you know.

Amory: Yeah, that's such a great point that like from a marketing standpoint, bucket list was like a jackpot. That of course, yeah, you've been wanting to take this trip. Who knows? You could drop dead. Any one of us could drop dead any second. You better take this trip right now while you're thinking of it. So Ben Zimmer, who's a pretty well known and respected linguist and lexicographer, wrote a piece about the phrases origins for The Wall Street Journal back in 2015, and he did confirm the origins of the term, that it was this screenwriter who developed this list of things he wanted to do before he kicked the bucket, turns it into a movie, and now all of a sudden, we think we've known this phrase forever. And Merriam-Webster has this online feature called Time Traveler, which another person in the Twitter thread linked to. And so this this marks the first time that particular words or phrases were used in print. And according to Merriam Webster's Time Traveler Bucket List was first used in print in 2006. So, probably in promotional materials for the movie The Bucket List. Although, someone else in that Twitter thread also cited the screenplay as having been written back in 1999, so it might even be even older than that. But still it goes back to the screenplay.

I should note that other people in this Twitter thread, they're saying things like, you know, "No way, my uncle had a bucket list long before this movie came out."

So I have some theories here. Maybe this person's uncle and many other folks did have lists of things that they wanted to do before they died. That's not a that's not a crazy concept that you might write down a list of goals as, as wild and adventurous as they may be. But did they call those lists, "bucket lists?" Or are they misremembering calling them bucket lists because the term now, as we've said, has gotten so popular and they're just applying that term retroactively to this list of things that they wanted to do before they died. Maybe this is just another example of the Mandela effect at play here. It's also possible that just the idea of life lists or goals is so powerful that we're conflating our familiarity with that concept and with the idea of a bucket list, with the idea of calling it a bucket list.

I should also say that it is possible that someone before screenwriter Justin Zackham really did call their list of things to do before they kicked the bucket a "bucket list," but maybe they just didn't write a screenplay about it.

Megan: It just didn't, you know, catch on to mainstream culture.

Amory: Yeah, or they weren't even trying to make it catch on to mainstream culture because it was just like an inside joke with their family or something. You know, it's like, it's like someone else in the Twitter thread compared this to "fetch," you know, like, "Wow, this guy really did make fetch happen!" And, you know, we're not always trying to "make fetch happen." Sometimes we just call something what we want to call it, and we don't realize that someone else has put it out there until there's a Twitter thread that gets everyone up in arms about the origin of that term.

So, at this point in time, there is no proof that the term was documented as having existed before the screenplay for The Bucket List. But what's less certain is the origin of the phrase that inspired the term bucket list. That phrase being "kick the bucket." So Anatoly Lieberman, he's an etymologist for Oxford University's blog. He declared the origin of "kick the bucket" officially unknown, but its first use in print in which it meant "to die" was in something called the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. That was published in 1785. It sounds like a fun read, I gotta say.

I'll also just say, if this episode inspires you to make your own bucket list, I want to offer some additional inspiration from my friend Ciarán, who made what is my all time favorite bucket list. I just messaged him about it because I've never forgotten his particular bucket list, which he says he thinks he made in college. Some of them are like, get married, you know. He wanted to make sure that he got married before he died or run a marathon. But it also has some very fun things and more unexpected things. One of them is to say, "Quick, follow that car!" and mean it. And he has a rule for himself that he can never remove anything from this list, even if he knows there are things on there that he will never do and that he doesn't want to do anymore. He has to keep it on the list. So it's almost turned into kind of like like a diary for him, documenting the things that he had, at one point in time, wanted to do, that he can look back on and see how he has changed as a person over the years. So I really love that. I think, you know, by all means, make a bucket list. You don't have to stick to it. Maybe just use it as a way to kind of see how you're changing as a person.

Megan: Yeah. Like, what I kind of learned from this is that, you know, from the Bucket List story, there is a very specific point in time that we can trace back to this term being being popularized and being added to the dictionary from this movie. And that language is also just, you know, the orange story was a good reminder for me that language is intentional. And it's not just a random jumble of vowels and consonants, like, language is full of history, and language is also full of, like, stories of our past. You just forget that wow, back in the day, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, oranges were once only available in Asia. The Western world did not have access to them. And just in these past few hundred years that has changed. But yeah, these stories, both with bucket list and orange, it's just a nice reminder that, you know, there are there are reasons and, you know, good reasons why we say the things that we do, whether it's a Hollywood movie or ancient trade routes.

Amory: Do you have any bucket list items yourself? Other than make an episode about oranges, which you can cross right off.

Megan: Um, I would like to operate a sailboat. I don't think I have the skill to go very far on my own in a sailboat. But I would like to go and sail in a sailboat from like one island to another. That'd be really cool.

Amory: Hmm. I will say one from my friend Ciarán's bucket list, which I think ties back to the orange story, which is: "To eat for a day entirely from food I've farmed." Putting that on my bucket list. Grow an orange and eat it.


Amory: This episode was produced and hosted by Megan Cattel and me, Am-orange-y Sivertson. Mix and sound design by Emily Jankowski.

Want to tell us about something very specific or maybe a little surprising on your bucket list? Email us a voice memo, or a non-voice memo, to, or hit us up on Reddit, or on Twitter.

Megan Cattel Freelance digital producer, WBUR Podcasts
Megan Cattel was a freelance digital producer for WBUR Podcasts.


Amory Sivertson Senior Producer, Podcasts
Amory Sivertson is a senior producer for podcasts and the co-host of Endless Thread.



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