Q&A: Why is it called a ‘grapefruit’?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have grape expectations..

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been thinking about fruit lately.

A: What a fruitful endeavour.

Q: Indeed. And one fruit that has had me stumped was the humble breakfast favourite, the “grapefruit”. How did it get its name?

A: We assume your confusion stems from it being nowhere near the size or colour of a grape?

Q: Duh.

A: Okay, well, it’s actually quite a new fruit – first named in 1814 by a naturalist named John Lunan. He’d seen the fruit on the island of Jamaica.

Q: Jamaican me hungry!

A: Haha, yeah, that’s the one. It was the love child of a Jamaican sweet orange and another paler citrus fruit named the pomelo. Both had been introduced from Asia at least a century earlier and thrived in the tropical climate.

Q: Love child?

A: That’s right – many citrus fruits are “hybrids”. Combining species much like dog breeders would do.

Q: Ah yes, My uncle Ray has a slabradoodle.

A: You probably mean a “labradoodle” – a popular breed.

Q: No, it’s definitely “slabradoodle”. It was a poodle crossed with a concrete slab. It loves to chase tennis balls and reinforced steel.

A: Fascinating. 

Q: Yeah, they’ll cross poodles with anything these days.

A: Okay, well, yeah, citrus fruits are a bit like that. For example, a “tangerine” is a mandarin and pomelo cross, resulting in what is essentially a smaller orange. The name comes from the Moroccan port of Tangier – where much of the fruit originally came from.

Q: Wait, is it citrus “fruits” or citrus “fruit”? 

A: Haha. Good question. Both are used – and it all comes down to context. For example, a tree might bear “fruit” of a single variety, but we can also talk about an orchard producing different “fruits” or even the “fruits” of victory.

Q: What about “the store sells a lot of fruit”?

A: That’s fine – and if there was going to be a rule, it’s usually to use “fruit” (no S) as the plural when it’s an uncountable noun or generic group, where the different types are not important. 

Q: I still don’t know why that guy named that Jamaican specimen the “grapefruit”!

A: Ah yes. Okay, so the fruit had actually been originally identified in Barbados and had initially been called “forbidden fruit”, but it wasn’t until Mr Lunan spotted this similar specimen in Jamaica that it got its modern name.

Q: But WHY grapes?

A: There are TWO theories. One is very simple – and it stems from the fact that Lunan thought the fruit tasted a lot like grapes. 

Q: But they taste NOTHING like grapes??? Ridiculous.

A: A second theory related to how the fruit grew in clumps that resembled a bunch of grapes. 

Q: Hmmmph. It’s very silly.

A: Absolutely.

Q: I think I preferred the name “forbidden fruit”.

A: Fair enough, but the name “grapefruit” has stood the test of time – although throughout the 1800s it was used to refer to its parent, the pomelo, too. It wasn’t until the rise of Florida’s ‘pink grapefruit’ in the early 1900s that the fruit and the name became distinct.

Q: Well, thanks for clearing up that origin story. I still can’t believe it was as simple as “oh, this tastes like a grape”. 

A: Yes indeed – to the fruit naturalists go the naming spoils.

Q: It does remind me of a good joke though. How many citrus fruits does it take to kill a pirate?

A: How many?

Q: None!

A: …

Q: … because… scurvy!

A: Goodbye.

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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