Avoiding The K-Word: A Racial Slur You Use For Thai Limes

2020 is the year that just won’t quit. For months we’ve been bouncing like pinballs between stories, scandals, and things we’d rather just forget about.

So in all this noise, you might have missed a story from the world of alcohol: “Plantation Rum” is changing its name.

In response to 2020’s global anti-racism protests, the brand has decided to drop ‘plantation’ from its name. According to the rum’s founder, Alexandre Gabriel:

“As the dialogue on racial equality continues globally, we understand the hurtful connotation the word ‘plantation’ can evoke to some people, especially in its association with much graver images and dark realities of the past”.

That is; ‘plantation’–with its connotations of slavery and racial abuse–isn’t a word they want to associate their brand with.

A rum by any other name… The range from the brand previously known as “Plantation Rum”. Photo from The Spirits Business.

So what does this have to do with limes? Well, the story got me thinking. How many other words do we need to rethink in the domain of food and drink? Is my shopping list racist?

In particular, it brought up a different linguistic problem I’ve had this year — one concerning citrus. Specifically, the wrinkly, pungent Thai limes that I love to cook with.

The K-Word

Thai limes are something I see them all the time in restaurants and on cooking shows. But they’re also known by a different name, one involving a racial slur which is usually repeated in those same restaurants and cooking programs.

I’m going to use this name once and then never again: it’s called a “Kaffir Lime”.

In Arabic, the word kafir originally referred to ‘nonbelievers’ or non-Muslims. Unfortunately, 15th-century Portuguese traders misinterpreted the word, thinking that it just applied to black people from Africa.

From Portuguese it spread into other European languages, becoming a racial slur used by whites against people of colour. Maybe its most derogatory usage was in Apartheid-era South Africa, used by white settlers and politicians against any and all people of colour. (The use of the K-word is now a crime in South Africa).

So how did that word come to describe a lime? No one knows for sure, but there are two good theories. The first says it started in South Africa, while the second says the limes arrived in South Africa with the name already attached.

‘Makruts’ and ‘Thai Limes’: The other, inoffensive names for the fruit on your shopping list. From Najib Zamri on Pixabay.

How Thai Limes Got an Offensive Name

The first theory claims that given the close connection with the racial slur, the name probably comes from South Africa. Since the lime comes originally from southeast Asia, white South Africans may have associated the strange fruit with Indonesian, Thai, and Indian immigrants using the fruit in their cooking. They used the same derogatory slur to describe them both.

Former Slate editor L.V. Anderson, however, doesn’t put much stock in this theory. “This seems unlikely,” she writes, “given that the K-word was used in South Africa to refer specifically to black Africans, not to other people of color”.

But maybe there’s an even more sinister root of the name. Writer Garret McCord claims that in Apartheid-era South Africa:

“Kaffirs… were considered dirty, uneducated, and ugly; people to be considered less than human compared to other classes and races… The Kaffir lime is similarly named to reflect attitudes towards a certain group of people. Kaffir limes are bulgy, mottled, and supposedly not as pretty as the smooth and glossy skins of other varieties.”

McCord, however, doesn’t offer any sources to corroborate this. It also ignores another theory for how the name came to be. Namely, that the K-word was attached to the lime long before it came to Africa.

Maryn McKenna, writing in National Geographic, traces the fruit back to its origins in Thailand. (It’s what gives tom yum soup such an amazingly aroma).

From Thailand it was traded north into Sri Lanka and India. Local Muslim Indians may have named the limes after the people they got them from. The name might therefore come from the original Arabic usage (those southeast Asian traders would have been Buddhist). Alternatively, it could come from a Sri Lankan ethnic group who proudly call themselves the “Sri Lankan Kaffirs”.

So What Can You Say Instead?

Regardless of where it came from, the word is still offensive. Even if the lime’s name doesn’t come from the slur, do you still want to be using it when you go to the store?

Or, just like with ‘Plantation’ Rum, should we focus not on what our intentions were, but on what the effect of our words is instead?

That’s especially true when there are plenty of other names we can use for this particular lime! In South Africa, where use of the K-word is a crime, they’re simply called ‘Thai Limes’. In Thailand (the lime’s home) it’s called the ‘Makrut Lime’ (also spelled makroot or makrood).

The way I see it, intentions don’t matter much at all.

My dog doesn’t have bad intentions when she pees on my bed, but I’m still going to train her out of it. And just like my pissing puppy needs to learn to go outside to go to the bathroom, we too need to learn to use inoffensive words to talk about our food.

Why not start with makrut limes?

This post was written on stolen lands belonging to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. Sovereignty was never ceded and colonial violence continues here to this day.

You can read more food culture nerd-outs on my blog, the Everyday Food Blog.

Food is storytelling. I find the stories behind the food we eat every day, and unpack the ethics of eating. Catch me at https://everydayfoodblog.com/ .

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