Spanish-Speakers’ Citrus Struggle: The Confusing Debate Over How to Say Lemon/Lime en Español

Lead Photo: Photo by Getty Images
Photo by Getty Images
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This morning, while the Remezcla editorial estaff discussed the day’s happenings, we had a confusing debate about how to say lemon and lime in Spanish. Our team represents a wide swathe of Latin America (Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Chile and Peru, among others), and everyone had a different opinion – not only about how to say these two different fruits in Spanish, but about what they actually were.

In a nutshell, we proved the thesis of PRI‘s recent article: “Why asking for a lime isn’t so easy in Spanish-speaking countries.”

In the piece, PRI‘s Moira Lavelle describes a friend’s desperate struggle to order a lime for his soda in Chile. After much frustration, Lavelle’s friend was eventually told that Chileans didn’t eat those “unripe lemons” he wanted. (This also happened to our managing editor when she tried to ask for limes in Argentina.)

“The word for lemon is limón, as it is in most other varieties of Spanish. The word for lime doesn’t exist [here] really,” said Scott Sadowsky, a professor of Chilean linguistics at Temuco’s Universidad de la Frontera. “That’s due to the fact that there really is nothing like a lime here. Every once in a while, someone will download a recipe from the Internet and you might see it translated as lima, which is more or less a literal translation from English, and people will normally shrug and just use lemons.”

And it’s more complicated than that, because some countries reverse the definitions of limón and lima, so that limón = lime and lima = lemon. Lavelle discovered that some of this confusion comes from the fact that neither limes nor lemons are indigenous to Latin America (they are thought to have originated in Southeast Asia). Since the different varieties weren’t always simultaneously available in the same countries, it wasn’t necessary to develop different names to distinguish amongst them.

Listen to the report below to learn about the perpetual lima/limón confusion, or read more on PRI.