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.


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