Dear Word Detective: This morning I read an article in the New York Times about the discovery of an ancient Roman road in the Netherlands. In describing the original road, the writer noted that it was “known in Latin as the ‘limes,’”–which made me wonder if this explains why the British call the trees that line long driveways “lime trees.” Since this wasn’t in your archive, I Googled “lime tree” and found this Wikipedia explanation: “The trees are generally called ‘linden’ in North America, and ‘lime’ in Britain. Both names are derived from the Germanic root ‘lind.’ The modern forms in English derive from ‘linde’ or ‘linne’ in Anglo Saxon and old Norse, and in Britain the word transformed more recently to the modern British form ‘lime.’” But I’m still wondering if there’s any association with the Roman road. — Laura Stempel.
Golly, that’s an interesting question, good for hours of research fun. I’m tempted to save it for a rainy day, but since it’s been raining here pretty much non-stop for more than a week, I guess I’d better just get to it. It’s easier than figuring out why it’s 65 degrees Fahrenheit in January.
[Editor's note: I feel obligated to point out that if you were a subscriber, you would have read this column last January, and that sentence would have made a bit more sense.]
There are three “limes” in English, each a distinct word with no relation to the others. The first is the substance “lime,” composed of carbonates, oxides and other tangy flavors of calcium. This is the stuff found in “limestone,” used in concrete, and to be avoided if at all possible in the highly caustic form “quicklime.”
The second “lime” is the citrus fruit, which takes its name from the Arabic “limun,” also the source of the English word “lemon.”
The third “lime” is the tree sort, specifically of the Tilia genus, which are popular ornamental trees in Europe as well as America, where they are more commonly called “linden” trees. As you discovered, both “lime” and “linden” hark back to the Germanic root “lind.” Roads lined with stately lime trees are a common sight in Europe and occasionally found here in the US, although we seem to prefer our scenic strip malls and gas stations.
As beautiful as a road lined with lime trees is, however, there is no connection between lime trees and the Roman road described in the article you read. The Latin word “limes” originally meant “a path,” especially one between fields, as well as any sort of boundary or property line. The Latin “limes,” in fact, gave us our modern word “limit.”
The “limes” uncovered in the Netherlands was apparently part of the “Limes Germanicus,” the northern boundary of the Roman Empire. More than just a road, it was designed as a barrier to block the Germanic tribes that threatened Roman control of northern Europe. The Roman Empire protected itself with such “limes” in several locations, including Hadrian’s Wall in Britain and the “Limes Arabicus” in the Roman province of Arabia. So parts of the “limes” mentioned in the article may have been lined with “lime” trees, but that’s not why the road was called “the limes.”