The tussle between what plant is edible and what is plain ornamental has been always around. Tomatoes and lemons—which are common kitchen plants now—were once considered ornamental. In fact, lemon is native to India. It was (and still is) called by its Sanskrit name nimbu and has been cultivated for over 2,500 years.
The Arab traders who visited ancient India were impressed with the round yellow fruits amidst symmetrical dark green leaves. They took some plants home to the Middle East and Africa in around 100 CE. They grew them in their front yard as ornamental trees. We could say they treated lemons like flowers, and not as a food component.
The Arabs were familiar with other citrus fruits like citron and Persian apple. Since lemons also belonged to the same family and looked similar, the called it limun. The root word was lim, which is a generic term for citrus fruits in Arabic and Persian.
The fruit was then widely distributed in the Middle East, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean regions. The Arabs took lemon to Southern Italy and Spain. Christian crusaders returning from Palestine took it to the rest of Europe. It was called limone in Italian and limon in Old French.
The term entered English as limon. One of its earliest uses can be found in a Middle English customs document of 1420-21. Literature written in the 14th and 15th centuries has varying spellings: lymons, limmons, lemmonz and lemmons.
The spelling lemon, as we use it now, was perhaps first written in the 17th century. British playwright William Congreve in his 1695 play Love for Love says, “Safer.. than Letters writ in Juice of Lemon, for no Fire can fetch it out.” Here he is referring to the technique of using lemon juice as invisible ink. If you write on paper with lemon juice, the writing disappears as soon as the juice dries up, but when the paper is held over a fire, the writing reappears. It is believed that lovers used it to send secret letters in ancient times. School kids continue to use it as a ‘magic trick.’
Sometime in the 19th century, lemon became a part of popular slang, but with multiple meanings. Perhaps its first slang meaning was ‘someone with a snappy disposition.’ It was later used by criminals to mean an easy victim. PG Wodehouse in his 1931 novel Big Money uses this slang: “I don’t know why it is, rich men’s sons are always the worst lemons in creation.”
Around the same time, lemon was also used to mean head. In The Inimitable Jeeves, Wodehouse uses lemon to mean this: ‘What might you have missed?’ I asked, the old lemon being slightly clouded. In the United States, the slang meaning that gained popularity was of something that is bad or doesn’t meet expectations. The 1914 book Choice Slang uses lemon to mean disappointment.
This meaning has survived through the years, thanks to the proverbial phrase to encourage optimism, If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. The phrase was first used in 1915 by American writer Elbert Hubbard in an obituary for dwarf actor Marshal P Wider. Praising Wilder’s attitude in using his disability to his advantage he wrote, “He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemonade-stand.”
The phrase was later popularised by Dale Carnegie, that incorrigible optimist. We now have several versions of it. One of them is: When life gives you lemon, grab tequila and salt.