It was quite some time back, when I was still a college student, I was invited to a Halloween party. Now, of course, Halloween is not a common celebration here, but it was another excuse for the cool kids to throw a party, and get shit drunk. And for me, it meant being going there to hang out with my usual group of friends and talk about stuff – the same group I hung around in college – while surrounded by loud music and people.

Being a Halloween party, we were expected to be in costume. And since I actually did not even want to go, I mustered whatever effort I could to come up with one. I printed out L-I-F-E in large letters, stuck them on my t-shirt, bought some lemons, and went to the party. And when anyone asked me if I was supposed to be life; I offered them a lemon. Many did not get it…but I was the most common impression of life, i.e. Life giving you lemons.

Origin of the Phrase

Now, when life gives you lemons, what is it that you usually do? The general notion or expectation is that you make lemonade. Lemons, usually represent sourness, meaning difficulty in life whereas making lemonade is symbolic of turning it into something more desirable – making the best out of a bad situation, in a sense. But whether you actually make lemonade or not, the phrase “When Life gives you lemons…” is quite old, and is still used to encourage optimism in the face of adversity.

The very first coinage of this phrase is credited to an anarchist English writer, Elbert Hubbard in 1915. He does so in his obituary to a disabled friend of his, titled ‘The King’s Jester‘. In the obituary, the line reads “He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemonade stand”.

While this is the first coinage of this expression, the more regular version that we see in use today is given by Dale Carnegie in his book ‘How to Start Worrying and Start Living‘ in 1948. His version simply reads “If you have lemons, make lemonade’. 

when life gives you lemons - dale carnegie

Variations

And now, the expression is so popular and mainstream that you can find them in Beyonce’s songs (in her album ‘Lemonade‘) to Eminem’s raps (in his song ‘Rap God‘). And since it is mainstream, there are many adaptations and variations of this as well – some of them quite witty, such as:

When Life gives you Lemons, take it. Don’t waste food.” – Giselle Marquez

When Life gives you Lemons, throw them at people…hard” – Mitch Griego

When Life gives you lemons, chuck it right back” – Bill Waterson

But by far, the best variation of this expression, for me, is Cave Johnson‘s rant from the video game Portal 2. Although I have never played the game, the character seems to be a mastermind or some sort of mad scientist, or inventor, who gets angry at this proverbial phrase, and goes:

“when life gives you lemons, don’t make lemonade! Make life take the lemons back…Get mad! I don’t want your damn lemons, what the hell am I supposed to do with these? Demand to see life’s manager…make life rue the day it thought it could give you lemons!”

Facts about Lemons

As you dive deeper into this Life and Lemons stuff, you will come across certain interesting things, too. It turns out, that Lemons are not naturally occurring fruits! (May have been common knowledge to some of you, not me). Lemons, belonging to the family of citruses, are hybrids between other citrus fruits. Actually, the most common citruses – lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits (bel) are all hybrids, including some not so common ones – Tangerines and Clementines.

lemons-limes-oranges-grapefruits

The most common naturally occurring citruses include Citron, Bitter Orange, Pomelo, Papeda, and Mandarin. And most other citruses are crosses from these. Lemons come from Citron and bitter orange, oranges from pomelo and mandarin, grapefruits from oranges and pomelo, and limes come from various citruses.

And when you dive even deeper, there are a lot of other non-citrus fruits – all too common among us – that are hybrids as well. The bananas that we eat today – the ones with grainy seeds – are edible but actually infertile, so they have to be grown artificially. And such is the case with strawberries as well. In the wild, these two fruits, with their seeds and forms, look so ghastly that you may never think about eating them.

wild banana vs common banana

Now, this may lead to some perplexion about how one can see these supposedly artificial plants/fruits growing naturally. And yeah, it is a valid question. But we also need to know that these hybrid fruits have been around for thousands of years, and have, by now, evolved to be able to grow freely and naturally. The same was the case with lemons. They’ve been around for some 8 millennia and now, can grow independently – which was only revealed after a genomic study.

Conclusion

The whole point of this blog post – from taking you all the way back to the origin of this classic phrase to the origin and misconception of lemons – has been to give light to a new, unpopular statement. It’s that the age-old adage, “When Life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is kinda old as the fruit itself, and does not make sense. Because of this, we have been blaming life for the bad things happening to us – our so-called “fate”. However, we need to realize that life is not to blame. Because, as it turns out, Life did not give us lemons, we made them ourselves