When is a lime not a lime?

In the first part of our tour to Neuf-Brisach yesterday we passed some trees that were in a spectacular state of blossom. No leaves yet, but covered in the most vivid greenish-yellow flowers – I’d never seen the like before. We wondered what they were and had enough nous to rule a lot of tree types out, but we were still stuck, especially in the absence of leaves.

And then the linguist tried to get one up on the biologist – this kind of colour (it looked more greenish to us than it appears in the photo) is sometimes referred to as lindgrün in German. A close English equivalent might be lime green. The German colour is named after the Linde tree (Latin tilia), which in English is a linden (North America) or a lime tree (Britain). So the tree was most probably a Linde, I decided, and that was the end of the discussion, me feeling ever so slightly smug for having solved the puzzle.

I kept thinking about this all day, and it dawned on me that the “lime green” we refer to in English might (could, must, as the day went on) actually be from this same root, i.e. the lime tree of this variety rather than that on which the small green citrus fruit grows. This will strike most other people as über-nerdy, I guess, but I got really excited about this and started writing, in my head, the blog entry that might possibly reveal to my friends (the general public, the world, Wikipedia…) the real origin of the term.

When we got back I reached for my illustrated nature book and also stretched my fingers as far as Wikipedia and some image searches to bulk out my research a bit. It took a bit of time, but I did find out one highly relevant thing…

…This, ladies and gentlemen, is a picture of the blossom of the – ahem – Norway maple (acer platanoides). And the moral of the tale is to check your facts before writing your blog entry. And that I am a better linguist than I am a biologist.

Epilogue: Wikipedia tells us the following about the Linde / lime tree / linden:

‘Lime is an altered form of Middle English lind, in the 16th century also line, from Old English feminine lind or linde, Proto-Germanic *lendā, cognate to Latin lentus “flexible” and Sanskrit latāliana“. Within Germanic languages, English lithe, German lind “lenient, yielding” are from the same root.

Linden was originally the adjective, “made from lime-wood” (equivalent to “wooden”), from the late 16th century “linden” was also used as a noun, probably influenced by translations of German romance, as an adoption of Linden, the plural of German Linde.[1] Neither the name nor the tree is related to the citrus fruit called “lime” (Citrus aurantifolia, family Rutaceae). Another widely-used common name used in North America is basswood, derived from bast, the name for the inner bark.’

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1 Comment

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One response to “When is a lime not a lime?

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