The next installment in the Asian Verbal Impact” series written for the magazine Asian Global Impact.

Lemons are a good proxy for the Mediterranean. Genesis drummer Chris Stewart’s account of settling in Andalusia is called Driving over Lemons, and Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons is a memoir of three years in Cyprus. There is a famous Greek neighbourhood restaurant-cum-celeb hangout in North London called “Lemonia”, while “Lemon Grove” and “Lemon Tree” are popular names for eateries calculated to appeal to sun-starved Brits craving a touch of the warm south.

All this notwithstanding, the genesis of the lemon and its name actually lies further east. No conclusive geographical source for the tree has been found, but it is generally thought to have come from somewhere in the region of northeast India or China. Suggestively, the Hindi and Chinese words for lemon bear a passing resemblance – nimbu in Hindi (as in nimbu paani, “lemon water”, a refreshing concoction of freshly squeezed lemon juice, water, sugar, salt and perhaps a dash of cumin) and ning-meng in Chinese – although the relationship is far from clear.

We are on firmer ground with the connection between nimbu and the Persian limu which may seem far-fetched until we consider the words for lemon in other Indian languages such as limbu in Gujarati and lebu in Bengali. In any case, the relationship between “l” and “n” is a curious one as can be seen in two Persian words for blue – nilak and lilak. The former clearly derives from the Sanskrit nila (blue) while the latter may well be the ancestor of the English word lilac.

Back in the Mediterranean, it is possible that the Ancient Romans were familiar with lemons although it is unclear whether their malum medicum (“Median Apple”) referred to the lemon or a related fruit called the citron. Widespread use in Europe does not seem to predate the mid-15th Century when lemons where introduced in Genoa, the cosmopolitan port in North Italy from which Christopher Columbus hailed. Prior to this lemons had been the preserve of the Arab and Persian worlds, and it is therefore no surprise that the Italian word limone is similar to the Arabic limun or laymun which presumably accompanied the fruit into Iraq and Egypt from Persia. However, the French limon (a generic term for a citrus fruit) dates back to the 12th Century, and there are already references to the lymon in 14th century English suggesting a gradual introduction throughout the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, the citron deserves a mention. Resembling a large, slightly gnarled lemon with a fragrant peel, legend has it that Alexander the Great brought the fruit to Europe from Persia or nearby Media (hence “Median Apple”). Perhaps not something you’re likely to pick up at the local supermarket, the citron is still used in candied form called succade in some European cakes and also plays a key role in the Jewish festival Sukkot. The English name citron is, of course, related to the Latin citrus, which, while now used generically, originally referred specifically to the citron. Etymologists are divided over the origins of this word, some tracing it to the Greek kedros (cedar tree), others back to Asia, but equally interesting is what has happened to it. In much of Northern Europe the word has been reallocated to refer specifically to the lemon – think of the French citron and the German zitrone – while in Greek it forms the word for yellow, kitrino. The French word for citron, on the other hand, is cédrat¸ which is suspiciously similar to cèdre (cedar) while in Italian, the words for citron and cedar are identical: cedro.

Of course, lemon is used in another context – that of a worthless or substandard item (particularly a car) or a more general misfortune (as in “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”) – but I’m going to leave that, and the question of whether this a purely English usage or if something similar occurs in other languages, to you to investigate.



The next installment in the Asian Verbal Impact” series written for the magazine Asian Global Impact.

There is nothing coy about rice and its link to Asia. Granted, it is a British kitchen staple and an illustrious player in the cuisines of Southern Europe and much of Africa but, unlike sugar, for example, it has not detached itself entirely from its geographical roots. I guarantee that when you think of Asian cuisine, whether from Kandahar or Kyoto, rice will be somewhere in your thoughts.

That said, rice has been on the British menu since the Middle Ages where it jostled with a host of exotic ingredients beloved of the wealthiest Normans – saffron, ginger, cardamom and cloves, amongst others. It found its way into the English dictionary in the mid-thirteenth century through a fairly typical route – its parent the Old French ris, grandparent the Italian riso and so on back to the Greek oryza, with any number of European cousins, such as the Dutch rijst and the Macedonian oriz, along the way.

From here things get murky. Rice, while not unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, was hardly commonplace and there is much debate about the history of rice cultivation in Europe. The Moors certainly introduced it in a big way to Spain, where it is cooked with saffron (another Moorish legacy) and seafood to make the country’s most famous dish, paella. Fittingly, Iberian words for rice (arroz, in Spanish and Portuguese, arròs in Catalan) are taken from the Arabic al-ruz which also occurs in the form oruz, clearly related to the Greek.

Where the Greeks and Arabs acquired their words is not clear cut. It is generally held that Classical Europe’s first brush with rice came from Alexander the Great’s expedition to India. Fittingly, one theory proposes a direct borrowing from arisi, the word for uncooked rice in Tamil, a Dravidian (South Indian) language. Temptingly plausible as this theory sounds, etymologists don’t tend to favour it, maintaining that Persia and Egypt were key stepping stones in rice’s westwards journey. Indeed, some argue that the Greeks took their word from an Old Persian form like vriz or vrinj which lives on in the Pashto (Afghani) wrizhe and the Farsi berenj. These words are thought, in turn, to have come from the Sanskrit word for rice, vrihi, which itself may be a distant cousin of arisi and have its origins in a Dravidian language.

Indian origins (Sanskrit or possibly Dravidian) are also proposed for the family of rice dishes called pulao in Hindi, pilaw in Persian, pilav in Turkish and pilafi in Greek. Nobody, alas, has managed to stretch this to lineage to paella, which probably derives, via Old French, from a Latin word (patella) meaning pan. Japanese, meanwhile, has a host of words for rice, one of which, raisu, seems to be a recent borrowing from English!

So much for the words. Rice itself doesn’t come from India, but China, which remains the world’s largest rice producer although India is a reasonably close second. A glance further down the list of the world’s top rice producers – including Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh and the Philippines – reinforces my original point. Pepper and sugar have been gone completely global, the orange is a rootless cosmopolitan, but despite the best efforts of Valencia and North Italy, Asia can still claim rice – the word and the grain – as its own.