I practice Lemon Law which means that I represent consumers who have bought defective cars. Ever wonder why we call a defective car a Lemon? As you might guess, I can tell you all about it.
It does seem odd that the word Lemon has become so synonymous with a defective product. After all, in any other context a lemon is just a yellow citrus fruit. But when you see the word in a piece on this site, you know it is a reference to an unfixable vehicle.
The notion that Lemon might mean something bad or defective has been around since at least the 1800s. There is often disagreement on word origins, so I will be the first to admit that none of this is carved in stone. But most sources I can locate show the first obvious uses of the word to denote a bad or defective thing around that time. Interestingly, it was used first as an insult, to describe a stupid person. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term lemon appeared in print in 1863 in that manner, a synonym for dimwit.
Why the negative connotation at all? Why not an orange, or banana? Perhaps it is because the lemon is quite sour tasting, despite its bright and cheery appearance. For such a happy-looking fruit, one cannot just chomp into it the way one might with an orange or banana. It may be that the first to use the word this way meant something which looked nice but did not live up to expectations upon closer examination.
But it was 1909 in the Saturday Evening Post where the OED found the first reference to an undesirable non-human thing being described as a lemon. "The wheel goes around; wherever the little indicator at the point of the pin stops, there is your prize – or your lemon."
Its first use in print to describe a bad car seems to have been in the U.K., in a 1931 edition of the Morning Post, where a man described selling "five lemons" for 210 British Pounds. The paper noted for its readers "'Lemon' was a term used in the trade for second-had cars of little value."
According to the OED, lemon was used to describe other things of questionable value but the attachment to defective automobiles became stronger as cars became ubiquitous. I do wonder if a car company today would use an ad such as this, run by Volkswagen in 1960. I understand the point they make with those words beneath the "Lemon" but I suspect most car companies would balk at such an association today.
Of course, those things sold like hotcakes and the ad is now considered a classic. But those were different times.
The meaning of the word lemon became more nuanced over time. The Saturday Review mentioned in 1972, "Mechanics are less than delighted to see lines of lemons converging on their service department." The implication there was that lemon did not just mean defective but had a connotation that the cars were difficult to repair.
The term even caught on in Australia, where I am told they speak a version of our language. The Sydney Morning Herald, 1972: "The effect of this on consumers is too many lemons or part lemons coupled with near impossibility of obtaining redress from the manufacturer."
Of course, it was during the 1960s that Ralph Nader's work, Unsafe at any Speed focused the nation's attention on automobile quality and safety. It wouldn't be until the 1980s that states started passing Lemon Laws but they did not call them that. They gave them names like "An Act Concerning Automobile Warranties," or "New Motor Vehicle Warranties." The latter of those two is the poetic result achieved by the Michigan State Legislature, but they do note on their website that the law is popularly known as the Lemon Law.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation.
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