By Alastair Culham

single lemon fruit on wood backgroundLemons are small yellow fruit from Citrus limon with a waxy peel and a refreshing smell. Lemon zest and juice form part of the recipies I use for Christmas cake and sweet mincemeat.  In contrast, to “feel like a lemon”, as I did yesterday when my usual #AdventBotany blogging site went offline,  means to feel useless or out of place in British English.  In contrast, American English has “a lemon” to mean a useless thing or object.  In both cases there is the common ground of something that is not needed or not useful.

Online Eymology Dictionary ( states, as its second definition of lemon –

lemon (n.2)

“worthless thing, disappointment, booby prize,” 1909, American English slang; from lemon (n.1), perhaps via a criminal slang sense of “a person who is a loser, a simpleton,” perhaps an image of someone a sharper can “suck the juice out of.” A pool hall hustle was called a lemon game (1908); while to hand someone a lemon was British slang (1906) for “to pass off a sub-standard article as a good one.” Or it simply may be a metaphor for something which leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. Specific sense of “second-hand car in poor condition” is by 1931.”But why is lemon so pejorative? This is something that remains unclear to me.  There is 19th century use of lemon to describe an unpleaseant person who is best avoided and it might be this that has led to lemon in the BE sense as a person sitting/standing on their own ‘like a lemon’ but the transition to useless or silly is hidden.

The origin of the lemon fruit itself is somewhat hidden, but it is thought to have originated in northwestern India (Morton, 1987) and spread from there.  Recent work on Citrus genomics (Wu et al. 2018) has helped unravel the genetic origin of lemon as a hybrid between citron and sour orange.

An illustration of the relationships among citrus species and the proportion of genetic contribution from each ancestor to derived modern citrus.
a, Allelic proportion of five progenitor citrus species in 50 accessions. CI, C. medica; FO, Fortunella; MA, C. reticulata; MC, C. micrantha; PU, C. maxima; UNK, unknown. The pummelos and citrons represent pure citrus species, whereas in the heterogeneous set of mandarins, the degree of pummelo introgression subdivides the group into pure (type-1) and admixed (type-2 and -3) mandarins. Three-letter code as in Fig. 1, see Supplementary Table 2 for details. b, Genealogy of major citrus genotypes. The five progenitor species are shown at the top. Blue lines represent simple crosses between two parental genotypes, whereas red lines represent more complex processes involving multiple individuals, generations and/or backcrosses. Whereas type-1 mandarins are pure species, type-2 (early-admixture) mandarins contain a small amount of pummelo admixture that can be traced back to a common pummelo ancestor (with P1 or P2 haplotypes). Later, additional pummelo introgressions into type-2 mandarins gave rise to both type-3 (late-admixture) mandarins and sweet orange. Further breeding between sweet orange and mandarins or within late-admixture mandarins produced additional modern mandarins. Fruit images are not to scale and represent the most popular citrus types. See Supplementary Note 1.1 for nomenclature usage. CC-BY-4.0 Nature

Having unravelled all that and learned that lemons are half siblings of limes (a cross between citron and C. micrantha) I feel rather less like a lemon and more like a cup of tea (possibly with a shortbread biscuit).


Anon. (no date) Online Etymology Dictionary

Morton, J. (1987). Lemon. p. 160–168. In: Fruits of warm climates. Julia F. Morton, Miami, FL.

Wu, G., Terol, J., Ibanez, V. et al. (2018). Genomics of the origin and evolution of Citrus. Nature 554, 311–316  doi:10.1038/nature25447

Share this: