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I was standing around like a lemon the other day (meaning, standing doing nothing when I ought to have been a little more active) when it occurred to me to wonder, why does one stand there like a lemon? Does anyone know the origin of this term?

I know that when you buy a poor-quality car it is said to be a lemon. Why does this particular fruit have such negative connotations?

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For the record - I've NEVER HEARD "stand around like a lemon." –  Joe Blow Jul 4 '11 at 12:39
    
@Joe Blow: This NGram for "there like a lemon" finds over 200 results, almost all of which are preceded by some variant of "stand" or "sit". I think the meaning is more about being kept waiting with nothing to occupy oneself, rather than being idle or lazy, though. –  FumbleFingers Jul 4 '11 at 14:00
    
It's curious that the same expression is used in Italian, where startene lì come un limone is used ("stand there like a lemon"). It's normally used in sentences such as non startene lì come un limone ("don't stand there like a lemon"). –  kiamlaluno Oct 27 '11 at 8:56
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Maybe its origin will explain it pretty much.

It came from "Standing around like a lost lemon". Phrase Finder here:

Standing around like a lost lemon" is cited in Eric Partridge, "A Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British" as a "more ladylike version" of "standing about like a spare prick at a wedding," defined as "unwanted, useless, idle, esp. with a hint of painfully embarrassed superfluity."

The reason "lemon" is used here, is because "lemon" in slang means :

slang a person or thing considered to be useless or defective

The reason "lemon" has a negative connotation could possibly be because:

"worthless thing," 1909, Amer.Eng. slang; from lemon (1), perhaps via criminal slang sense of "a person who is a loser, a simpleton," which is perhaps from the notion of someone a sharper can "suck the juice out of." A pool hall hustle was called a lemon game (1908); while to hand someone a lemon was British slang (1906) for "to pass off a sub-standard article as a good one." Or it simply may be a metaphor for something which "leaves a bad taste in one's mouth."

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Ham - there's also the weird phrase "Until the pips squeak..." which (probably) started off in relation to squeezing lemons. –  Joe Blow Jul 4 '11 at 12:40
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It's not exactly an origin or first use, but here's the earliest usage I could find.

On being questioned about what was meant, the speaker there expanded by saying "kind of soppy". I agree with the hearer, who replied that this particular metaphorical usage didn't seem very witty or telling.

Having said that, the expression did start to get used more often in the 1980s. Still only a couple of hundred usages in this NGram for there like a lemon, but almost all of them are preceded by some variant of the verbs stand or sit.

In most cases the emphasis is on being kept waiting, with nothing to occupy one's time, rather than OP's implied voluntarily choosing to be idle. The implication being that the subject is unable to do anything about the enforced waiting.

I do not believe this particular usage owes much if anything to the (originally British) slang meaning of a lemon as a poor-quality troublesome purchase (normally a car). Here's the second earliest usage I could find, which again defines the expression in terms of soppiness/ineffectuality. The most common thing done with lemons is to squeeze them; the the metaphorical usage alludes to the fact that we don't expect lemons to resist such treatment.

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protected by RegDwigнt Apr 30 '12 at 9:29

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