If you’ve lived in a Spanish-speaking country, then you’ve probably come across the controversy of how to say lemon and lime in Spanish. Surprisingly, it’s not as cut-and-dry and you might expect. It varies from country to country. This article will break down the differences so that you can buy the right citrus fruit when you need it.
Lemons and limes are hybrids of the same plant—a citron—which were crossed with small-flowered pepita. This generated many shades of lemon and lime, including much smaller variations like key limes.
Also, when we think of limes (such as the large Mexican lime), we should recognize that these are native to Southeast Asia. According to Tracy Kahn, a specialist in citrus fruits at the University of California, Riverside, the ancestor of modern limes and lemons (from the citron plants) were brought to Spain during the crusades and then introduced to the Americas by the conquistadores.
Much of the confusion resulted from the fact that originally there were very few citron fruit options, whereas now there is a multitude of varieties of lemons and limes that are available in grocery stores that weren’t available before.
If you’re traveling through Spain, then the dialect can differ between the nine different regions of Spain. However, a good rule of thumb is that most often limes are referred to as “limones verdes”, whereas lemons are called “limones”.
However, for this article, I sent a message to my friends in Granada, in Andalucia, and they said limón is a lemon, and lima is a lime. Considering their words for bacon (beicon being bacon and tocino being only thin slices of pork belly fat), I wouldn’t be surprised about the inversion of the terminology from Mexican Spanish.
You might encounter differences in the 32 different states and CDMX (which is often considered its own state after 2016 when they voted for autonomy from the federal government. However, for the most part in Mexico, a lime is referred to as a “limón” and lemon is called a “lima”.
Unfortunately, there is no distinction between a larger lime and what in English we would call a “key lime”. They are all referred to as limón. I have read that lima can also refer to the bigger limes, though I have never come across this myself. Perhaps, it is in the north where I lack much experience.
According to Scott Sadowsky, a professor of Chilean linguistics at the University of La Frontera, the word for lime doesn’t exist. That’s because limes aren’t really eaten in Chile. Sadowsky says, “That’s due to the fact that there really is nothing like a lime here.” He goes on to say, “. . . people will normally shrug and just use lemons.” Similarly, Moira Lavelle from PRI recants the indeavors of a friend to ask for lime in her soda.
In many countries in South America, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and El Salvador, often it is like in Mexico. Professor of Hispanic Linguistics at Ohio State University, Terrel Morgan, says that from his experience limones are limes—small, very sour, green citrus fruits—whereas limas are the larger, slightly sweeter fruits that in English we call “lemons”.
Morgan says, “I think it’s a recent phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking world that now there are both green and yellow fruits. And so, in some places, they have given it the name lima even though it may not have existed a while back.”
In Argentina, a limón is a lemon, and a lima is a lime.
In Venezuela, the word limón can refer to both lemon and lime. This can create confusion until one realizes that limes are very rare, and in general you're going to get a lemon.
In Cuba, there is only a limón. This is a large, green fruit that isn't fairly sweet, more like a lemon than a lime. It's the only fruit available, and any citron fruit tends to be called limón.
In the Dominican Republic, the lime available is of a Persian variety. The scientific name is citrus latifolia. Citrus limon (the scientific name for the yellow, sweet lemon) is less common. In Dominican Republic, limón is used for a lime and limón amarillo is used for lemon.
In Puerto Rico, a limón is a lemon, and a lima is a lime.
Ordering a lemon or a lime in different Spanish speaking countries can be difficult because the terms are not standardized. In one country, a limón might bring you a small, green, incredibly tart fruit, and in another it might bring you a large, mellower, yellow fruit.
This article on how to say lemon and lime in Spanish is meant to just help open you to the possibility that you may not get what you thought you ordered if you're traveling throughout several different Spanish speaking countries. Hopefully this article will help you get the fruit that you expected.
The Expat Resource Center is your go to spot for everything from guides to articles about your favorite destinations.
Get instant worldwide insurance quotes to your inbox!Get Quote Now
For several years, Rafael has been crafting articles to help expats and nomads in their journey abroad. He takes great pride in meticulously researching the ins-and-outs of bureaucratic processes in different countries around the world. A digital nomad for almost a decade, Rafael also enjoys exploring cultural phenomena in his articles to better help expats and nomads assimilate. If you have any questions or issues with the content of an article, he’s the one to contact for further information.