Proud to be a “Limey” – most of the time!

Poms, Rosbifs, Kippers, Teabags, Faifokloki, Goddams, Rooineks, Piratas, and Camones are variously slang terms for subjects of the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, British overseas territories, and their descendants. And so is Limey.

The 18th century British naval practice of eating citrus fruits such as limes to ward off scurvy during long voyages is said to have given rise to the term “Limey” to describe Brits in general. It was the Scottish physician and naval surgeon James Lind (1716-94) who surmised that Dutch sailors suffered less from vitamin deficiency than British sailors because of their consumption of boiled cabbage.

In an experiment as early as 1747 Lind tested his theory that scurvy was due to putrefaction of the body that could be helped by acids. He decided to include a dietary supplement of an acidic nature in the experiment. It began after two months at sea when the ship was afflicted with scurvy. Lind divided 12 scorbutic sailors into six groups. They all received the same diet but, in addition, group one was given a quart of cider daily, group two 25 drops of elixir of vitriol (sulphuric acid mixed with alcohol and flavoured with ginger and cinammon), group three six spoonfuls of vinegar, group four half a pint of seawater, group five received two oranges and one lemon, and the last group a spicy paste plus a drink of barley water. The treatment of group five stopped after six days when they ran out of fruit, but by that time one sailor was fit for duty while another had almost recovered.

Time passed and Lind retired. But many Naval officers and surgeons were convinced that citrus juices provided the answer to scurvy even if they did not know why. On the insistence of senior officers, in 1794 lemon juice was issued on board the Suffolk on a 23-week, non-stop voyage to India. The daily ration of two-thirds of an ounce mixed in grog contained just about the minimum daily intake of 10 mg vitamin C. There was no serious outbreak of scurvy. This astonishing event resulted in a widespread demand within the Navy for lemon juice, which became mandatory in 1795.

A less flattering origin for the word “Limey” holds that ship captains subsequently had a choice between buying lemons or limes, and the British apparently opted for the cheaper limes. Hence “Limey” was intended to stigmatize a race that valued money over human life, rather than lauding British appreciation of the benefits of vitamin C. In fact, limes replaced lemons because they were more readily available from Britain’s own Caribbean colonies.

A further possibility – discounted by many – is that “Limey” is an echo of a common British imprecation, “Gorblimey” (often “Corblimey”) derived from “God blind me!”. Blimey is first recorded in print in Barrère and Leland’s A dictionary of slang, jargon and cant (1889). My father often used “Blimey!” to express surprise, almost interchangeably with the 19th century “Strewth!” (a corruption of “God’s truth!”)

But now I have another reason for being called a “Limey” following a grievous and unprovoked assault in the Massachusetts heartland by a tick bearing Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto, a bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto is the main cause of Lyme disease in parts of North America, whereas its cousins Borrelia afzelii and Borrelia garinii cause most European cases. The disease is named after the town of Lyme, Connecticut, USA, where it was identified in 1975.

Untreated, Lyme disease can have severe consequences. Fortunately, in most cases strong antibiotics can cure the problem. When I learnt that I had been infected, my language was more colourful than “Strewth!” and “Gorblimey!” and I wish the cure was simply to drink lime juice. But, it’s another good reason to call me a Limey – for now!


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