I mean, c’mon: egg plant? That ain’t right.

Dear Word Detective:  When I’m in one of my darker moods, my favorite song is Meat Loaf’s “Life is a lemon and I want my money back.”  Today I began to wonder where this use of the word “lemon” came from.  We use the corresponding word “Zitrone” in the same sense in German, along with the extended phrase “mit Zitronen handeln” (literally, “to deal in lemons”).  Obviously, lemons can be unpleasantly sour, but I could name quite a few things that taste a lot worse.  So, why lemons? — Holger Märtens, Germany.

There are indeed a lot of things that taste worse than lemons.  I would nominate, for example, eggplant, which pegs my personal Yuck-O-Meter (all the way to eleven, in fact).  Why anyone would voluntarily eat that stuff utterly eludes me.  Right now several thousand readers are, of course, shaking their heads and tut-tutting, “That poor deluded boy.  He’s just never had eggplant cooked correctly.  I’ll send him my recipe!”  Please don’t. I already have a wonderful recipe for eggplant, coincidentally the same one recommended by Samuel Johnson for his own least-favorite vegetable:  “A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.”

Lemons have had an image problem pretty much ever since humans began cultivating them.  On the one hand, used as a flavoring, lemons make all sorts of yummy things possible, from lemonade to lemon meringue pie to lemon drop candy.  On the other, lemon juice on its own is acidic, sour and stings like the dickens when it gets in your eyes.  (For some mysterious reason, lemons hate me and attack at every opportunity.)  Very few people sit around munching on lemons, but that’s true of useful flavorings such as garlic and cinnamon as well.  Still, we don’t call a new car that croaks after 500 miles “a garlic,” so there must indeed be something about the lemon.

The word “lemon” comes to us from the Old French “limon,” which was derived from Arabic roots and served as a generic term for citrus fruit in general (which explains how the same root could also give us “lime”).  The use of “lemon” to mean “disappointing result” or “something unwanted” is very old, reflecting the fact that, while useful in cooking, a lemon standing alone is just a lump of sourness with a tough skin to boot.  In Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labours Lost (1598), for instance, one character proclaims, “The armipotent Mars, of lances the almighty, Gave Hector a gift …,” to which another puckishly suggests, “A lemon.”

In the mid-19th century, “lemon” was used as a colloquial term for a person of a “tart” disposition, as well as, more significantly for our purposes, slang for a “sucker” or “loser,” a dim person easily taken advantage of.  It has been suggested that this latter use stems from the idea that it is easy to “suck or squeeze the juice out of” such a person (“I don’t know why it is, rich men’s sons are always the worst lemons in creation,” P.G. Wodehouse, 1931).  By 1909, “lemon” was also firmly established in American slang as a term for “something worthless,” especially a broken or useless item fobbed off on an unsuspecting customer.

It’s likely that the current use of “lemon” to mean “something that doesn’t live up to its billing” or “a disappointing purchase” comes from a combination of “lemon” in the “sucker” sense (i.e., the buyer got “taken”) and the much older sense of “lemon” meaning “something undesirable.”

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