The Fricassée of Words is a stew of musings on food-inspired expressions, words and word play. Here is today’s food-inspired expression for us to nibble at.
“I bought a lemon!”
Anyone hearing this expression for the first time would get it, instantly. You have most certainly heard of the “Lemon Law.” We know that tagging a car “lemon” refers to its ill state of repair, and more precisely to the fact that it was initially represented as satisfactory, but grandly failed to meet expectations and quality standards. This, of course, leaves a sour taste, and many assume that the reference to a lemon lies in this simple analogy. Not exactly.
The term “lemon,” when applied in a derogatory sense, used to refer to a defective product (a tool or household item), or one that had been sold under shady pretense. It also referred to a dimwitted individual, or rather one deemed to be so. “Bird brain” would be an equivalent, which is not too nice for birds now, is it? Nor for the targeted individual, of course. But we digress. All this to say that “lemon,” as applied to a defective vehicle, appears in the American vernacular precisely with the spreading of the automobile to every driveway in America.
The first gasoline automobile was released in 1885. Within less than a hundred years, the car was no longer an oddity and American consumers demanded quality. In the 1960’s, nearly every average American household had a family car. The auto-making industry was subject to public scrutiny and quality standards had to be at the forefront of production. This was true of the auto industry worldwide, but it is commonly agreed that the US set the tone. It is around this time that US states began formulating and adopting “lemon laws,” designed to protect consumers from unscrupulous car makers, deals and dealers.
The true origin of the expression remains debatable. There are several avenues to pursue, each spanning from a social context that does lend credibility to the use of the phrase at that moment. Casinos are one possible background, whereas the lemon is the least valuable symbol on the slot machine. Pool halls (as in billiard) of the late 19th century and early 20th century offer yet another context for using the yellow citrus in a meaningful manner as a game taken over by a bossy or otherwise overly-confident individual was commonly known as a “lemon game.”
There are at least two more expressions that put the otherwise zesty and tasty little fruit to good (debatable) use. “To hand someone a lemon,” means offering a poorly made, outdated or defective item while representing it as being of tip-top quality; “The answer is a lemon,” means that it fails to satisfy the inquiry.
The slot machine and pool hall references sound most readily suited to the intended sentiment. It is interesting that the characteristic sourness of the fruit, along with the resulting lip-puckering reflex it triggers, should not have been the inspiration for the analogy to a questionable deal or unsatisfactory item.
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