The best word ever

>> Friday, May 08, 2009

I've long held the erroneous opinion that the best word in the English language was "fuck," since it is by far the most versatile word our language has to offer. It's a noun, verb, adjective and, obviously, an expletive. "I fucking fucked that fucking fucker," is a grammatically-correct and complete construction, though it's admitted that the various meanings of the word may leave some doubt as to meaning--was the fucker actually fucking when he was fucked, or is he merely fucking, and was he alive or dead after he was fucked? So the sentence is vague, yes, and one would need some context to know who might be congratulated or who might be mourned; nonetheless, it's essential correctness is unquestionable.

So "fuck" is a perfectly wonderful word. However, it isn't the most wonderful word in the English language. The evidence has been entirely before me for most of my life, and yet I didn't have the epiphany until the other day. Rather, I knew of the wonderful qualities of the best word in the English language--its compactness, its self-reflexive, Ouroborors-ish nature, and its unique poetic quality--but it didn't occur to me that these individual facts added up to a point of some minor consequence, that the best word in the entire width, breadth and depth of the English language is:


Consider this, the most crucial thing about the word orange: this is a word that can only be used as a noun or as an adjective (i.e. it lacks fuck's inherent versatility and flexibility), but the noun is defined only by the adjective--an orange is a fruit that is orange--and the adjective is only really defined by the noun--orange is the color of oranges. Further, as is well-known, orange is a word which has no rhymes, at least none that aren't proper nouns. And one must suspect that even those names that rhyme with orange must have come into being long after Westerners discovered the fruit, and were adopted by people trying too hard to distinguish themselves and seizing upon the idea of rhyming themselves with orange as a futile slash at fame.

Actually, there's one minor inaccuracy or flaw in the previous paragraph, but not really: orange can, of course, also be used as an adjective to describe flavor and not just color. Only here again we come upon the word chasing its own tail: what does orange taste like? Orange is the flavor of oranges, a kind of fruit that is orange.

No doubt some will entertain the objection that orange can be defined as a yellow-red or red-yellow color, but really: do either of those hyphenated constructions do justice to actual orange. If I ask for yellow-red or red-yellow, I'm bound to get something other than orange, whereas if I ask you for orange you will give it to me. We all know precisely what orange is and what is orange within a few nanometers of wavelength.

We're told that orange entered the English language in somewhat the same fashion as algebra--from the Arabic, in which one finds the word nāranj. This is an oversimplification in a way: the Arabs derived the word from Persian and the Persians from Sanskrit, and English actually came into the word via the French who got it from the Spanish but left the "n" off the front for whatever reason; I'd like to think it's because of the negatory meaning of ne in French, and that the French realized an orange is something, not a nothing as might be implied if one called it something sounding like ne orenge ("Non," the Frenchman says, "c'est l'orenge, non ne orenge, idiot," or something along those lines--it's been at least twenty years since I last used French for anything, and then I only used it on a test in high school. So excuse me if my usage is utterly orange with rust.) But Arabic seems to me, without research, to be the crucial link, since the Arabs surely gave the word to the Spanish during the seven centuries the peninsula belonged to the Moors. Anyway, it lets me point out how vaguely similar "orange" is to "algebra," kind of.

Regardless of whether the word comes to us via Arabic or from some strange planet vibrating at a strange frequency in a wavelength of 600 nanometers, it is what it is, and the only thing it is is orange, and it is the perfect word. Read it, and weep in joy and frustration, reverence and awe, fear and loathing, love and tender respect.


Ilya Friday, May 8, 2009 at 8:46:00 AM EDT  

The perfection of color/object relationship is clearly the invention of the French and the English. In other languages that I am familiar with, the word for orange the color and orange the fruit are not exactly the same - or even vastly different (German: orange/Apfelsin, Spanish: naranja/anaranjado, Italian: arancio/arancione, Russian: оранжевый/апельсин, I can make a guess that Chinese hieroglyphs will not be the same for two terms; conversely, a quick check for Hebrew and Greek suggests that those two have exactly the same word for both terms).

I needed to occupy myself with something for a few minutes, is all...

neurondoc Friday, May 8, 2009 at 10:00:00 AM EDT  

And then there is the pronunciation issue. Do you pronounce the word OR-inj or AHR-inj? I am from NJ, so it is AHR-inj for me, which my daughter finds annoying.

Eric Friday, May 8, 2009 at 11:50:00 AM EDT  

As long as you don't pronounce it "oh-RANG-ee," I think you're probably alright.

And thanks for the insights, Ilya! Spanish was one of the way-stations on orange's journey from Persian to English, so it's interesting to see that difference show up in modern Spanish.

Leanright,  Friday, May 8, 2009 at 1:31:00 PM EDT  

My first thought is that Eric is REALLY looking for something to write about today. But then, I gave it some thought:

You could say that an Orange is the same color as a Carrot, or even a Pumpkin, but then the redundancy is that that color IS "orange".

I had a though at one point that if I could invent something, get it patented and call it a "Splorange" or a "Gorange", then I would get credit for inventing the only thing in the English language to rhyme with Orange. Unfortunately, I'm not that much of a technical mind, so anyone out there may run with my idea. (I do want to be taken out for cocktails, should your venture succeed). Did I mention that the Splorange is actually Orange?

Thanks for the "Friday Lite" post, Eric.

John the Scientist Friday, May 8, 2009 at 1:45:00 PM EDT  

Ilya, nope, the word / character in Chinese is the same:

橘色 - orange color

橘子 - orange fruit

However, you'll notice a different second character after "orange" in both words , since Chinese is no longer a monosyllabic language, but more of a compound word language. The character "橘" does not really stand on its own any more than the definite article "the" does in English - just as if you say "the" in English, the listener thinks "the what?", if you say "橘" (ju) by itself, a Chinese speaker will be thinking "橘" what? and wait for the next word. So orange does not have quite the same character as the English word, but it is similar.

There is a word for "brown" in Chinese "棕", but it's hardly ever used. Today, Chinese refer to brown as "coffee" (咖啡色), similar to orange, it's coffee-color because brown is the color of coffee.

There is also a word "tea-color" "茶色", which they don't use much anymore because it is just fucking stupid (or so I'm inclined to believe, my wife differs on this a bit :D). Tea in China can be anything from pale green-yellow to black, and they refer to black tea as 紅茶 or "red tea" .

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