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?

  • 1
    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
    Sep 26, 2013 at 23:15
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    Bradd Szonye. You gave me a comment to my question asking the usage of ‘Turtles all the way down’ as a similar analogy with ‘peeling onions,’ in which you wrote: ‘By the way, you peel onions and peal bells.” I took it for ‘peel bells’, which was my mistake. So I asked you back “With limited stock of my English vocabulary, I was at a loss for words to describe multiple layers of onion beneath the skin. Do you call them bells?” You didn’t give me answer. So I brought this question. I erased the reference to your comment and my misunderstanding in the previous question. Sep 27, 2013 at 0:00
  • Cont. However, still it remains as a question for me how to call the part of onion (inner layers) we peel . Sep 27, 2013 at 0:37
  • We usually just call them layers. Sep 27, 2013 at 22:06
  • (Upvoted and close-vote retracted.) Sep 27, 2013 at 22:08

7 Answers 7


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


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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. 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
    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 - 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)

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