What’s in a Name? If It’s This Lime, It’s Like Saying the N-Word

Thu, 03 Jul 2014 12:47:24 PDT

There’s a kind of lime that’s used in Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines that lends a bright, intense punch to various types of curries and similar dishes. Plenty sets the fruit apart from the one you might put on the edge of a Corona this holiday weekend—it has bumpy, highly fragrant skin and pungent leaves that are also used in cooking. Then there’s this: The English name for the fruit is so toxic in South Africa that simply uttering it can open someone up to legal action.

It’s the kaffir lime we’re talking about, a variety that’s native to a broad swath of South and Southeast Asia, from India to Malaysia. But no one calls it that there. Were you to inquire about the ingredients in a lime-y dish served in Bangkok, you’d be told that the intense flavor came from a makrut lime. None of the countries to which the lime is native call it by the name we do, and as the fruit has become more widely available in the United States, some, such as the Twitter feed @KaffirNoMore, are saying its time to banish the K-word—which is the equivalent of the N-word in South Africa.

While awareness is on the rise, this isn’t a new linguistic problem. David Karp, the fruit detective, explained the problem and its roots in language and immigration in the New York Times back in 2004—when you were likely spending your social media time adding animated flames to a MySpace profile, not tweeting about race.

The fruit's name, however, remains problematic, because kaffir, originally an Arabic word for unbeliever, is used by whites in South Africa as a derogatory term for blacks. The name kaffir lime derives from Asia rather than South Africa, perhaps from Indian Muslims who encountered the fruit as an import from Thailand and Sri Lanka, where non-Muslims predominated. Nevertheless, the term is offensive to some, and the Thai name, makrut, is sometimes used as a substitute.

Not only are we dealing with racist overtones, the slur is xenophobic too. So maybe its time for Thai-takeout-loving America to embrace the makrut lime.

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Original article from TakePart