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In the above questions, "lemon" is used to mean a faulty or defective item. A typical use might be to describe a second hand car that, once bought, turns out to have serious faults, as a "lemon".

Why is the delicious fruit associated with faulty goods?

Etymonline says:

  • 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."

But none of these rings true for me, and words like "may be" and "perhaps" show a lack of confidence. Can anyone shed more light?

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In Br. Eng. "lemon" is almost exclusively reserved for a (recently-purchased) substandard car. If you recently bought something other than a car that turned out to be substandard, you'd have been sold a pup –  FumbleFingers Jan 3 '12 at 17:21
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@FumbleFingers Lemons are mostly cars in the US, too. We don't do much trade in pups, though. –  onomatomaniak Jan 3 '12 at 17:39
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@onomatomaniak: Sold a pup relates to the piglet you thought you'd bought (sight unseen) that turned out to be a pup when you got home and opened the bag. Americans do have related usages - "pork barrel" (politics), for example. I don't know if you guys can buy a "pig in a poke" (poke meaning "bag"), but that's another one over this side of the pond. –  FumbleFingers Jan 3 '12 at 17:51
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I think your confusion comes from thinking of a lemon as a "delicious fruit". If you think of it as a "sour fruit that tastes awful unless it's covered with sugar or some other flavoring", then the idea of calling a defective product a lemon makes perfect sense. Like, "I was expecting an orange, but instead I got a lemon." –  Jay Jan 3 '12 at 18:00
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@Jay you may be right, but I'm still having trouble with it. It's quite a leap from "a bit sour eaten alone" to "completely useless item". Lemons are (and always were) highly valued as ingredients for all kinds of things, after all. –  slim Jan 3 '12 at 18:03
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5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Evan Morris over at The Word Detective, answering a similar query, has some helpful musings.

He argues that despite all the good lemons have done, they've suffered from an image problem since the dawn of their cultivation—due primarily to their stinging acidity and tough skins.

He continues,

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.”

And, clearly drawing from some of the OED citations mentioned by @Barrie, he concludes,

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.”

Also of note, I found occasional use of the phrase (at least as early as 1918), "to give someone a lemon and pass it off as a nugget (of gold)." If this was the original saying, later shortened to "handing someone a lemon," then the implication of trickery is confirmed and the metaphorical use of lemon further explained.

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The earliest figurative use of the word, in 1863, was, in the OED’s words, as

a person with a tart or snappy disposition. More usually (slang), a simpleton, a loser; a person easily deluded or taken advantage of.

The OED’s earliest citation showing it used as

something which is bad or undesirable or which fails to meet one's expectations

is dated 1909, and in this use it is of US origin. There is also a citation dated three years earlier showing its use in the expression 'to hand (someone) a lemon’ meaning

to pass off a sub-standard article as good; to swindle (a person), to do (someone) down.’

I suppose it’s not too unlikely a progression from being used to describe a person who is in some way unsatisfactory to being used to describe a thing that is is in some way unsatisfactory.

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Interesting transition - from the person who's dumb enough to take the substandard item to the item itself. –  onomatomaniak Jan 3 '12 at 17:41
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Lemon is the prototype of a sour fruit in the USA. The facial grimace associated with an unexpected strong sour taste is also associated with strong negative emotion, like grief or sorrow.

  • After she told him, he looked like he was sucking on a lemon.

So, metaphorically, lemon gets to be the mythological symbol of bad fortune, at least in the USA.

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Especially in an ancient context, where they did not enjoy the access that we have to a large variety of fruits from various regions: If I only occasionally had access to a fruit, then a lemon would be my least favorite by far. –  Bob Aug 14 '12 at 12:43
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Lemons were used on early slot machines to denote a result that was worthless. A lemon on the pay-line meant the play was an automatic loser. Hence, the term "lemon" came to mean a product or purchase that was "worthless."

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Please edit your answer to cite reliable facts, such as: When? Before or after the examples given in the question? Do you have any evidence to connect the lemon on slot machines to the origin of "lemon" meaning "worthless"? Couldn't the "lemon" on the pay-line have been selected because "lemon" already meant "worthless"? –  MετάEd Dec 31 '12 at 7:58
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Purely a guess based on explanations I've seen for other terms — maybe the full term is something like, "He thought he was buying an orange and actually got sold a lemon". Seems plausible to me.

Edit: OK, I didn't see the previous poster, "Also of note, I found occasional use of the phrase (at least as early as 1918), "to give someone a lemon and pass it off as a nugget (of gold)."

I feel that passing a lemon off as a nugget of gold is a bit far-fetched, but it is along the same lines as my orange/lemon suggestion.

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