Veronica Vinje: Saying “kaffir lime” is like saying the N-word before “lime”

Stop a racial slur before it becomes embedded into our lexicon

Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) and its leaf, once hardly known to the average North American, is gaining in popularity. Many of us have only recently begun to hear of this lime and its leaf, usually in the context of a lovely Southeast Asian dish. But as it grows in popularity, it is becoming increasingly mainstream, appearing on the menus of non-Southeast Asian restaurants such as Bernardin in NYC and Earls and PiDGiN in Vancouver. Perhaps it’s an example of our much-lauded multiculturalism, except that this lime’s most commonly known name in North America—kaffir lime (henceforth referred to as “K-lime”)—involves a horrible racial epithet, akin to using the N-word in North America.

An Encyclopedia of Swearing by Geoffrey Hughes notes the original meaning of the K-word is derived from the Arabic kafir, which means an unbeliever of Islam, also known as an infidel. It was used by Arab traders to refer to the indigenous peoples of Africa, then taken up by Portuguese sailors and subsequently picked up by Dutch and British colonists, especially in South Africa. By the 1800s, it was viewed as a racial slur and became increasingly taboo, and by 1976 the K-word was actionable in court in South Africa as crimen injuria. Some readers may recall that apartheid only ended in 1994, so the fact that this term was considered an affront to a person’s dignity prior to the abolition of apartheid should give cause for pause. Food writer Mick Vann has explained that the K-word was linked to the lime because the non-white workers used this lime in their cooking.

The accelerating ubiquitousness of the K-lime term is of concern, because as the machinery of our mass consumerist, food-obsessed society in North America becomes more accustomed to the lime with its current name, there is a distinct possibility that it will become mainstream, an everyday ingredient that we “need” and demand—and a racist term will become embedded in our culture. Economics drives the globalization engine that brought these limes into our grocery stores, and there is no denying that there is a link between economic and cultural globalization. However, it does not mean we must also import the K-word, with all its cultural and racist connotations, when there is no reason to give these limes this name, as these limes are not called K-limes in Southeast Asia where they originate.

Some may argue that this lime’s name in North America is unrelated to its racist meanings in South Africa, but I disagree. Material culture studies by academics may wish to describe this as a matter of social dualism, where the physical lime has no bearing on the issues of racism, colonialism, slavery, class, ethnicity, and economics that the K-lime’s name comes wrapped up in, but I do not accept that it is okay to use a term that is offensive, insulting, and derogatory just because “I don’t mean it that way.”

It seems that despite the K-word’s racist history and current meaning, North American gourmands insist on blithely calling this lime by its racist name, even though there is a perfectly acceptable and well-known alternative name for it: makrut. It is commonly called this in Thailand, a region that boasts many recipes and uses for this lime. So I say: hey North America, time to wake up and stop using this racist word! This is an opportunity for consumers in North America to dig a bit deeper and ask questions about the origins and meanings of terms we use that might be offensive, and also to question and decide what type of society we wish to be—a society that does not think “it’s a big deal” or a society that does care how we appropriate and use cultural terms and objects.

The KaffirNoMore campaign invites you to post photos of menus, recipes, and signs using the K-lime term and tag the establishment that is using it, with the goal of educating and encouraging businesses and people to stop using the racist term and instead use makrut limes.

Comments (17) Add New Comment
As a South African, I heartily agree that this term shouldn't be popularised. It is incredibly offensive, is filled with hatred, and is indeed our shameful equivalent of the N-word or any other racial slur. As there is another name for the fruit, it's not necessary to label it as such and ignorance is not an excuse.
Rating: +14
Irrational Control of Speech
People are free to call things whatever they like. Busybodies like the author are insane.
Rating: -24
This is a fine example of political correctness out of control. Just because a word is offensive in one part of the world, doesn't mean it's bad everywhere. Fanny, shag, pants, slag...famously mean something different outside of North America. And go ahead and ask a Mandarin speaker how they feel about a muffin. Not such a tasty delight in China.
Rating: -21
Moebius Stripper
Thank you for this article, Veronica Vinje. I didn't know the history of this word and now that I do, it's easy enough to avoid using.
Rating: +2
Hold on a second. As a true "infidel" in every sense of the word, I find no offence in this term. In fact, I believe kafir limes will now be my favourite!
Rating: -12
also beware of 'french fries' 'blackberries' and 'egg whites'!
Rating: -11
I am equally offended by Swiss cheese, Belgian waffles, and going Dutch when paying the bill at a restaurant. This article tosses the salad. Greek salad. Ha!
Rating: -9
If you have ever heard a white South African refer to a black person as a "kaffir"-you don't forget it.
I have, the name is spit out with hate.
Remember here years ago, Brazil Nuts were referred to as N***** toes-no one would say that now.
Same goes for the limes-the name is a big deal and a change is needed-fast.

Rating: +6
I can't believe someone has to explain this, but some people reading here are incredibly stupid, so here goes: identifying something with a country (ie. French, Greek, Swiss) is not the same as a racial slur.

Race=different than place.

You're welcome.

Rating: +12
It is clear for anyone who does even a few minutes of research that the k-word is equivalent to the n-word and is not an innocuous term for those who lived through and fought the apartheid regime. Canadian's supported the struggle lead by Mandela and should support the removal of a racist term from our markets and restaurants. This is not political correctness - it is common decency, just as we have apologized for the head tax and interment camps in our own history.
Rating: -3
Sylvain Garagnon
Pfft! In the supermarket Geant, in the Islamic section, I came upon a book by some British 'revert' going on at length about 'Kaffir culture', 'Kaffir economy'... each chapter dealt with a different aspect of the 'Kaffir', meaning of course the Westerner. You didn't see me doing all 'I'mofftotheHague' about it! Your intentions, I'm sure, are good, but outside the RSA, people either don't know what it means or think it means 'infidel', which is just as rude as a racial slur. So if infidels, in their majority, are either amused, slightly irritated or indifferent to this appellation, there's no need to get outraged about it in the name of a small portion only of the target group. Nonetheless, it's always good to be aware of etymologies- makes you look intelligent (from the Latin 'intellegere', meaning to understand).
Rating: -8
It is good that you and the vast majority are amused or slightly irritated by the word infidel - by definition, I am an infidel as well and the word does not bother me. But this is not about you and me or the feelings of the vast majority about the etymology of selected words. It is about discouraging the common use of a harsh racial slur. Canadian's are better than this and can operate at a higher standard. It is apples and oranges to compare the use of slang words or history of the word infidel to the k-word or n-word. You may feel differently if you spoke with someone from RSA about the current meaning and recent history behind the k-word.
Rating: -1
Alana McFarlane
To me, this is about the fundamentals of communication. Why do we label things like lime leaves? So we can communicate and have a dialog. Opening a dialog is inclusionary. The opposite of making people feel like they do not want to engage. So words that have an established history in society as exclusionary are not useful. We don’t need these words and it is our job to evolve language.
Rating: 0
Suarez the Vampire
Well, good luck with the linguistic purification; oh, btw, 'abid' is a common appellation for blacks in Arabia, which incidentally means 'slave' or 'servant'. Canada to the rescue! I think a class of Westerners pick the easiest fights- those where the risk is minimal but you get to feel reeeal good about yourselves after an initial outburst.
Rating: +1
Any article about making a term less offensive brings out the internet tappers who, in all likelihood, never gave a second of thought to their preference but all of a sudden have this overwhelming desire to mock "politically correct" liberals.

Talk about an easy battle that makes people feel reeeeeal good about themselves.
Rating: -7
Stuart Best
My first reaction was, "Aw, c'mon, seriously?" But I looked up the etymology just to verify what I read, and I'm convinced. The fact is, you can't argue that a large, substantial population that we have relations with finds the word highly offensive. Once we're educated to this fact (as I have just been) then the only respectful thing to do is to just drop it. Oxford advocates using the term "makrut lime".

That said, I don't think there's much hope of getting the rest of the world to drop the term. After all, the Brits still routinely call cigarettes "fags", and Oxford states that "fag" is a legitimate noun to describe a "tiring or unwelcome task." At a certain point, we just have to respect the way certain cultures use certain words, despite how others may feel about it, even if we choose not to use those terms ourselves.
Rating: +2
vampire the Suarez
Dearest Ruk, if you think telling a bunch of do-gooders that they're being silly makes me feel good, no it doesn't. It just frustrates me the way people feel great and open-minded about themselves for no reason. They hop from non-commital cause to another, from #bringourgirlsback to this to 'Free Palestine!'Like so many bigots, get selectively outraged and achieve nothing. I find it stupid, and frankly think you're just playing at being perfect little moderns.
Rating: -8
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