We call the state you can’t stop tearing “玉ねぎの皮をむくように―tamanegino kawa wo muku youni – like peeling the ‘skins’ of onion" in Japanese. In actuality, we don’t shed (or drop) tears when we peel off the outer skin of onion. We shed (or drop) tears when we peel the inner layers of onion.

This might look a very primitive question to Anglophones. But none of Japanese English dictionary at hand carries English counterpart to ‘the inner layer’ of onion. It can't be flesh, pulp, capsule, or leaf. No English text books available in this country makes a specific mention to the inner part (layers) of onion.

What is the exact word for the thing (part) of onion we peel off in colloquial English, and if possible with botanical nomencclature?

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    There are some good answers below, but to be perfectly clear about your specific question- No, do not ever call it/them bells- it would be akin to calling a car a pencil.
    – Jim
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 23:15
  • I just realized that the tearing in the question refers to your eyes tearing up – I initially read it as tearing off layers of the onion. You may want to use crying instead. While we don't literally cry because of onions, it's still natural to use the word, and it's less ambiguous that way. Commented Sep 30, 2013 at 0:35
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    I’m voting to close this question because as the answers show, answers belong either on ELL or a science platform. Commented Dec 24, 2022 at 12:58

8 Answers 8


They are called scales - outer ones are membranous and inner ones fleshy. The protective thin outer covering is called tunic.

Outside going in: tunic, scale leaves, immature flower. Bottom is basal plate with roots
(source: tcms at www.taylor.k12.ga.us)

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    While I don't doubt that this is correct to a botanist or nutritionist or somebody, I have never heard an onion skin called a tunic before, nor the inner layers scales. I would definitely not recommend them to a non-native speaker. Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 22:03
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    This is very interesting, but Bradd is right—nonexperts will be unfamiliar with any of these terms, and you will likely be left with confusion and blank stares from native English speakers if you speak of removing the tunic of an onion.
    – nohat
    Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 0:23
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    My question is about the ‘popular’ name as well as botanical term of inner layers of onion that requires repetition of peeling exercise compelling spillage of tear, and not outer skin (tunic according to user 49727) that is easily removed, and by nonce action. Many answers I’ve received so far seem to suggest that I can use ‘skin’ for the inner layers, and say ‘peel skin(s)’ of onion in the same way as we say ‘玉ねぎの皮をむく- peel skin of onion ‘ in Japanese - Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 1:21

We peel the skin off the onion, then after that, we peel layers of the onion.


The onion is a bulb.

The skin is the membrane on a layer.

Each layer has a skin, a membrane that wraps around the actual layer.

The layer itself is actually a leaf.

The very center does not have a name since it is just younger leaves growing out of the basal disc.


Once you get past the thin, dry, brown skin, the onion is composed of many layers.

We often use onion or peeling an onion as a metaphor for something that has many layers. For example, there is a system for browsing the web anonymously called Tor. Tor is an acronym for The Onion Router, which refers to the fact that all communications are wrapped in many layers of security.


The term is skin. I helped my grandma grow onions as a kid and we were told to not tear the skin when picking.


I peel the layers of an onion. When I distinguish, I call the outer brown layer a skin and the inner are fleshy leaves. Unlike an artichoke, I never call the inner portion the heart. When making an analogy to the structure of an onion, such as in atomic chemistry, I may call them shells.


Skin, or husk if the onion is really old and the first layers are dried up, and layers for the meaty parts. I found the translation of the onion scene from Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt.

[Takes an onion and peels it, layer by layer] There's the untidy outer husk ;

That's the shipwrecked man on the wreck of the boat ; Next layer's the Passenger, thin and skinny- Still smacking of Peer Gynt a little. Next we come to the gold-digger self; The pith of it's gone some one's seen to that. This layer with a hardened edge Is the fur-hunter of Hudson Bay. The next one's like a crown. No, thank you ! We'll throw it away without further question. Here's the Antiquarian, short and sturdy ; And here is the Prophet, fresh and juicy ; He stinks, as the saying goes, of lies Enough to bring water to your eyes. This layer, effeminately curled, Is the man who lived a life of pleasure. The next looks sickly. It's streaked with black. Black may mean missionaries or negroes.

[Pulls off several layers together.]

There's a most surprising lot of layers! Are we never coming to the kernel ?

[Pulls all that is left to pieces.]

There isn't one ! To the innermost bit It's nothing but layers, smaller and smaller. Nature's a joker !

(Point is, he never gets to the kernel, or core, since there is none in an onion. Existential angst expressed through a vegetable - very nordic)



Funny thing is when you go out to eat... you can eat Onion Rings. Dipped in a batter then deep fried. If you cut the onion in neat slices then pull them apart you have rings. But in all the other answers it's not described with that word...rings.

To cut an onion I would never say, cut off the tunic, or peel off the tunic...Slice the membranes in straight cuts. Just hearing that they are called scales makes me wince or that the inner layers are described as fleshy is almost giving it human traits. Dice the fleshy or flesh... finely. It gives me the willies (shivers) Maybe we are talking really about fish? And not about onions.

  • It's common to use the word "flesh" of fruit and veg, examples. You may not like it, but that's your personal opinion.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 8:59

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