Not all that glitters is gold

In a recent comment on my other blog, Jim at How I See It asked about “the relationship of the words oro, ore, oriole, orange, aura, and the gold symbol Au.” Etymologically, it makes sense to take the last first, because chemistry uses the symbol Au as an abbreviation of the Latin noun for ‘gold,’ aurum; that’s the predecessor of Spanish oro, the first word in the list. Oriole is also related. English acquired it from Old French, where it developed from Latin aureolus, a diminutive of aureus, the adjective corresponding to aurum; that makes an oriole ‘a golden [bird].’ Latin aureus is the obvious source of Spanish áureo. It’s the less obvious source of öre, a Swedish unit of currency that’s 1/100 of a krona.

The fact that oriole sounds a lot like Oreo, the familiar cookie, made me wonder if there’s a connection. An article at has this to say:

So where did the name “Oreo” come from? The people at Nabisco aren’t quite sure. Some believe that the cookie’s name was taken from the French word for gold, “or” (the main color on early Oreo packages).

Others claim the name stemmed from the shape of a hill-shaped test version; thus naming the cookie in Greek for mountain, “oreo.”

Still others believe the name is a combination of taking the “re” from “cream” and placing it between the two “o”s in “chocolate” – making “o-re-o.”

And still, others believe that the cookie was named Oreo because it was short and easy to pronounce.

Or, says snarky me, maybe it’s called Oreo because the name comes from explanation 1 or 2 or 3 or 4.

Of the remaining three words in the original query, none are related to each other or to gold. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, ore developed from a cross between “Old English ōra and Old English ār, brass, copper, bronze.” English orange and the Spanish cognate naranja are ultimately of Dravidian origin; you can read the word’s interesting history here. As for aura, it goes back to Greek aurā, which meant ‘breath.’ That’s still a primary sense in Spanish. From it came the extended meaning ‘slight breeze,’ which is a poetic sense in Spanish and used to be a meaning of the word in English as well.

In closing, let me point out the wording of this post’s title, which is logically correct. The commonly heard “all that glitters isn’t gold” logically means that every glittering thing isn’t gold, which is obviously not true. My version bears the indisputable aura of reason.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Melanie McNeil
    Jan 10, 2018 @ 16:58:42

    Thanks for the thorough look at these words. Jim and I were kicking them around one day and couldn’t find the right connections. As to “oriole,” apparently the European bird named “oriole” are quite different from American Baltimore oriole.

    Thanks again.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 10, 2018 @ 23:22:57

      You’re welcome. From your links I see what you mean about the two kinds of oriole, which aren’t even in the same genus. It was common when Europeans came to the New World that if they saw a plant or animal similar to one back home they’d transfer the familiar name to the new thing. Sometimes they added a qualifier to distinguish between the two. One that annoys me is “false dandelion,” a name that is itself false because the wildflower it refers to is truly native in Texas. The dandelion from Eurasia that settlers were familiar with is alien (and highly invasive!) here.


  2. Jim R
    Jan 10, 2018 @ 17:40:12

    Excellent and thorough coverage of our query. Not all those words were related to gold. Thank you for the post.


  3. shoreacres
    Jan 10, 2018 @ 22:11:25

    Setting aside gold for a moment, the naming of Oreos appears to be grounded in history, botany, and corporate competition. An entire article can be found here, but this summation may do.

    In 1912, the Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company began producing Hydrox: the first chocolate wafer/cream-filled cookie in the U.S. It was a very fancy cookie, with scalloped edges and laurel leaves decorating it. A decade later, Nabisco introduced the Oreo, in direct competition with Loose-Wiles. Here’s what the article has to say about the name:

    But consider the roster of Nabisco’s fancy biscuits in 1913: Avena, Lotus, Helicon, Zephyrette, Zaytona, Anola, Ramona, and Oreo. It seems like a random collection of exotic names, but I noticed a pattern.

    Avena is Latin for “oats,” and we all know the famous lotus blossom. “Helicon” comes from Heliconia, a genus of flower native to Florida. “Zephyrette” matches with Zephyranthes, the genus of the tropical lily. Zaytona is Arabic for “olive,” “Anola” was shortened from “canola” (one of its defining ingredients), and ramona is in the buttercup family (buttercups dotted each box). Someone at Nabisco clearly had a thing for botany, and to understand Oreo, you don’t have to look any further than the mountain laurel on every Hydrox—Oreodaphne. [The Oreo] was a copycat in every way.

    Thanks to the taxonomists, Oreodaphne californica now is known as Umbellularia californica.

    What a wonderful diversion this was!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 11, 2018 @ 00:13:01

      The editors of that website presumably know a lot about food, and they may be on to something about the name Oreo coming from Oreodaphne. I say may. How certain is it that the flowers on the Hydrox cookies are mountain laurels? In the bit of searching I did I couldn’t find a confirmation of that.

      There are questions about what was named after what. Helicon, which is the name for ‘a large spiral brass tuba,’ presumably comes from the same root as helix, which is why heliconia came to have its name. The botanical genus Zephyranthes comes from Greek zephyros, referring to the west wind. Ramona is a woman’s name; is there any need to reach out to a flower as the origin?

      The article raises other questions. The standard Arabic word for olive is zaytun. Did Zaytona come from that (was olive oil an ingredient?), or was it a take-off on Daytona? Best I can tell, the term Canola originated in the 1970s as a euphemism for the unfortunately named source of the oil: rapeseed; if Anola was the name of a cookie in 1913, it couldn’t have come from Canola.

      I’m inherently skeptical about folk etymologies, and I’m afraid all these doubts do nothing to allay my skepticism. Sorry.


  4. Robert Parker
    Jan 11, 2018 @ 16:30:13

    The first time I watched “The Wizard of Oz,” I, like a lot of kids, thought the witch’s guards, while they marched around her castle, were chanting “Oreo…Oreo” but it’s actually just “O-E-O”. Anyway I guess the guards would eat those Andes creme de menthe candies, since they’re green.


  5. Maria
    Jan 16, 2018 @ 07:56:11

    A similar “or-” coming from “Latin originem (nominative origo) “a rise, commencement, beginning, source; descent, lineage, birth,” from stem of oriri “arise, rise, get up; appear above the horizon, become visible; be born, be descended, receive life;” are related to “origin” and “Orient” and of course unrelated to “oro” but interesting that “orometry” exists in English, which is the study of mountains. “Oregon”is also of unknown origin, or at least disputed.


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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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