citrus, part I

Fast Mash

  • Citrus referred to the “citron tree” in Latin; possibly related to the Greek word for the cedar tree, kedros, and whose scent apparently can evoke citron
  • Lemon (via French) and lime (via Spanish) come from Arabic laimun/limah, which may in turn trace back to Persian limun/lim (citrus)  

I hate to get too personal on this blog, but one of my missions in the Mashed Radish is to connect etymologies to everyday life.

So, my fiancée and I are moving to Southern California for the next couple of years for her work. Tough luck, right? We’re aiming to be-neighbor (coinage props?) some family in Laguna Beach, where the rents are as high as the citrus is abundant. Here’s to unbalanced diets…and budgets.

Naturally, all of this got me thinking: Where do the words for fruit come from anyhow? Let’s start with citrus.


Today, citrus commonly refers to a class of fruits—you’re probably thinking of lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits. I like clementines, tangerines, and tangelos, too, but someone has to draw the line. And you know how long these posts get already. More technically, citrus refers to a particular genus (capital “c” Citrus) of flowering plants that bear the fruit.

In Latin, citrus named the citron tree, found in Africa (the northern parts, I presume) that had fragrant wood and bore citron, a sour fruit that resembles a bumpier, more oblong lemon. Except for the, um, absolutely terrifying creature that is known as Buddha’s Hand citron featured below. Aptly named…if Buddha is a space monster trying to suck your face off.

I'm scared, too.

Anyways, the OED puts citrus as ultimately Asiatic in origin. As biologists do for the fruit, first springing up in Northeast India, Burma, and Southeast China.

Some etymologists (including Weekley and Klein) argue that citrus is actually cognate to Greek’s cedar (kedrosκέδρος). Adding to this theory is the aromatic resemblance between the two trees. As the Online Etymology Dictionary notes, the citron was the first citrus available in the West. (Ponder being the first to handle such a fruit!) And historically, the fruit was used as medicine, explaining the citron’s scientific name, Citrus medica.

Check out some of these passages from antiquity on citron. Theophrastus says its improves the breath? Pliny the Elder describes its uses as ancient bug spray? (Citronella is indeed derived from citrus, lexically speaking, but is squeezed out of lemongrass.) And a believer who cites the Koran is like a citron? Good work, Wikipedia.

Lemon & Lime

Speaking of Islam, cue the confetti: Mashed Radish has its first Arabic words. (Not that Islam is solely an institution of Arabic, but I needed a good transition.)

Lemon entered English around 1400 from Old French limon (citrus fruit). Via Provençal or Italian and with many a Romance cognate, the word ultimately comes from the Arabic laimun or limah*, with lim functioning as a collective word for citrus fruits in general. Lime shows a similar lineage, but entering in the 1630s through the Spanish lima. The OED ends lemon and lime here, but others, such as Skeat, trace the Arabic back to the Persian limun or limuna. 

Arabic is not an Indo-European language, but Persian is. It’s an Iranian language in the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. Crazy that Persian is in the same family as English, Latin, and German, right? (Sc. English father, Persian padar; English name, Persian nam; English you, Persian to/tu; English mouse, Persian mush. Yep, cognates.). But, while in the Afro-Asiatic family, Arabic was nevertheless influenced by Persian. You know, history and stuff.

But, before looking up lemon and lime, I wouldn’t have thought of the ancient Middle East. And I wouldn’t just think of 7UP. Or, cocktails, more accurately. I think of a lemon, as in a crappy car. Lemon has referred to “something undesirable,” as Partridge puts it, since around 1920, although the Online Etymology Dictionary dates a meaning of “worthless thing” further back to 1909, noting:

American English slang…perhaps via criminal slang sense of “a person who is a loser, a simpleton,” which is perhaps from the notion of someone a sharper can “suck the juice out of.”

Or it could just be metaphorical, lemon’s being sour and all.

Limey, an insulting term for an Englishman, goes back, too. Apparently, in 1888, South Africans, New Zealanders, and Australians used the term as an epithet for English immigrants. In the US, the term goes back to 1918, first describing a British sailor or ship and later generalized to a whole nationality, often functioning adjectivally, if you know where I’m going. The term is shortened from lime-juicer, as lime juice was proscribed by the British Navy to prevent scurvy all the way back in 1795.

In Part II, things get a little bit plumper with orange and grapefruit. Orange you glad I didn’t squeeze them all into one?

m ∫ r ∫ 

*Due to variations in the transcription of the Arabic, I have “averaged out” the spelling of the Arabic and Persian roots of lemon and lime. 


4 thoughts on “citrus, part I

  1. I owned a Chevy once that was a “lemon” and never gave any conscious thought to comparing this metaphor to the fruit which enhances my fresh water and culinary tastes. Cognitive dissonance perhaps, like sour grapes in Aesop’s popular fable?

    Actually I cannot remember my first experience with a lemon, let alone a lime. I witnessed my father eating lemons. First he would peel them like an orange and then tear the segments loose one at a time.Then he would eagerly place each morsel in his mouth, sucking the juice and chewing the pulp. His scrunched and puckered face belied his gastronomical enjoyment yet day after day he repeated this routine. Perhaps my curiosity led me to ask him for a taste. How can something that makes your face contort with disgust taste so good? Perhaps that was my first encounter with “sour”. Or perhaps another adult pointed all of this out to me.

    Later in life I enjoyed lemonade, lemon pie and lemon drops. They tasted sweet but there was a hint of pleasing tartness to the flavor. Again, I disassociated “sour” with these treats.

    Today I have a love/hate relationship with sour. I reserve puckering for bestowing kisses and add sweeteners to natural foods in moderation. Sour grapes is not a part of my vocabulary. When life gives you lemons, be happy with all your options: peel, grate, squeeze, sweeten or not! And for the record, Sweet Tarts are not candy!!!


  2. It’s ironic that a word (limey) which derived from what was once a closely guarded military secret in the British Navy, the prescription of citrus juice as a means to combat scurvy, a common problem for various nations’ navies, ended up as a nickname for the British sailor and eventually a commonplace American epithet for an Englishman or anyone of British descent?
    Also amusing that the familiar car Citroën on the roads is actually the Dutch word for ‘lemon’ (citroen) minus the diaeresis which was added to aid the French to pronounce the name. André Citroën, founder of the eponymous French auto company was of Dutch origin.
    As a ‘Limey’ myself, I can tell you that even though we (Brits) know the meaning of the term, in fact I heard it recently on the TV used in the movie ‘Get Him To The Greek’ starring Jonah Hill and Russell Brand but for us it has little to no register.

    The modern Welsh word for ‘lemon’ is, rather surprisingly lemon or lemwn but an earlier word for ‘lemon’ was surafal (sour+apple) which is more or less obsolete now although it’s still present in Breton ‘suraval’ synonymous with other Breton ‘lemons’ (aval-sitroñs; aval-sitron) and Afrikaans still calls a lemon suurlemoen but that’s more to do with their word for ‘orange’ being, confusingly lemoen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s