When Life Gives You Lemons…

…make lime juice.

Wait… no… what!?

How could I possibly be so silly!? Lemons and limes are completely different: they’re like apples and… well, let’s not confuse things. But they do taste quite different.

That’s why I found it kind of funny when, a few years ago I discovered that while the French for lemon is citron, the word for lime is citron vert, literally translating to green lemon. I found the sheer simplicity of it a little absurd:


Hey, what will we call this green fruit? The one that’s shaped like a lemon?

Green lemon!?

-Sounds good, let’s have some wine.



Odd as it may seem though, they could just have easily done the opposite and call lemons something along the lines of yellow limes. You see, it’s not just the case that limes are a green variant of lemons. Both fruits are hybrids formed by crossbreeding older citrus fruits with other fruits. It’s difficult really to say which one came first, or which is the “main” type, as both are different variations on the same tangy theme.

In fact, both names share the same etymology, most likely from the Persian līmūn, meaning citrus fruit. And while I’d love to sit here all evening writing about the history of horticulture, this is all interesting to me because of the confusion these two fruits cause. Here, I’ve gone to the trouble of making a table to demonstrate:

  Lemon Lime
Dutch citroen limoen
French citron citron vert
German Zitrone Limette
Icelandic sítrónu límóna
Italian limone lime
Norwegian sitron lime
Portuguese limão lima

You can probably notice a general trend for a lot of European languages using a word similar to citron to refer to lemons, probably because lemons resemble the yellow citron fruit. Because they’re yellow. From an English-language point of view though, that doesn’t help much. We don’t talk about the citron fruit much, and as both lemons and limes are citrus fruits, it’s not necessarily obvious that a citroen or sítrónu is a lemon and not a lime. And then you’ve got words like limoen for lime, and limão and lima in Portuguese, which I know I’d find confusing if I ever learned Portuguese.

But then lemon and lime are probably quite confusing for learners of English. They’re very similar, and it’s not necessarily obvious at all which word refers to which fruit.

So next time life hands you lemons, check what colour they are first, in case it’s got confused and given you limes instead.

3 thoughts on “When Life Gives You Lemons…

  1. It doesn’t help that in Portuguese changing the -a or -o ending to ão makes it bigger (what’s the opposition of the diminutive?). It’s slang, and it is nothing to do with the origin of the word, but it does make the word for lemon look like ‘big lime’.

    Liked by 1 person

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