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Q From Tom Williams: Why is a grapefruit called that when it looks nothing like a grape?

A This question is indeed a bit of a puzzle, but the grapefruit is a strange plant even without the problem of its name. It appeared in Barbados in the middle of the eighteenth century as a natural cross between the orange and the pummelo or pomelo. The latter is also known by its Dutch name pompelmoose and as shaddock, because a Captain Shaddock of the East India Company brought it halfway around the world from the East Indies late in the seventeenth century.

The grapefruit was first described in 1750 by the Reverend Griffith Hughes and was then and often afterwards called the forbidden fruit, because it was seized upon by those searching for the identity of the original tree of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. John Lunan, in whose botanical work of 1814 about Jamaica, Hortus Jamaicensis, the word grapefruit first appeared in English, said of it: “There is a variety known by the name of grape-fruit, on account of its resemblance in flavour to the grape; this fruit is not near so large as the shaddock”. Mr Lunan had either never tasted one, or grapefruit of the period were sweeter than they are now, or he was suffering from sour grapes.

It’s certain his idea about the name was wrong. It turns out the grapefruit was really so called because it grows in groups that when small, green and unripe look to a vivid imagination a bit like a bunch of grapes.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Jan. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 4 January 2003.