buy a lemon


buy a lemon  (idiomatic expression)
/baɪ ə ˈlɛmən/


  • to purchase something, typically a vehicle, that is found to be defective or unsatisfactory after the purchase.
  • to acquire an item that turns out to be worthless or of significantly lower quality than expected.

Example Sentences

  1. After only a week, the car started having engine problems, and I realized I had bought a lemon.
  2. She was excited about her new laptop, but it stopped working within a month—she definitely bought a lemon.
  3. Despite thorough research, sometimes you can still end up buying a lemon.
  4. I was excited about my new phone, but it stopped charging after a week—I bought a lemon.
  5. He thought he got a great deal on the used car, but it broke down twice in the first month—he bought a lemon.

Origin and History

The phrase “buy a lemon” is a rich idiom with multiple contributing origins. Its most immediate connection is to the early automobile industry in the United States, where deceptive sales practices were rampant. However, its metaphorical roots in lemon bitterness and historical slang usage also play significant roles. The exact origins of this phrase are somewhat debated, with several theories contributing to its etymology. Here’s a comprehensive look at the various theories and beliefs surrounding the origin of “buy a lemon.”

Early 20th Century Automobile Industry

According to one of the most widely accepted theories, the idiom originated in the early 20th century in the United States, coinciding with the rise of the automobile industry. Used car salesmen would often sell cars that appeared to be in excellent condition but were, in fact, riddled with mechanical issues. People referred to these defective cars as “lemons.” The term metaphorically captured the sour experience of buying a car that looked sweet on the outside but was bitterly disappointing when put to use.

The Metaphor of Bitterness

Another popular theory links the idiom to the inherent bitterness of lemons. If one were to bite into a lemon expecting it to be sweet, the sour taste would be an unpleasant surprise. This mirrors the experience of purchasing something that initially seems valuable but soon reveals itself to be defective. This metaphor emphasizes the shock and disappointment akin to biting into a lemon.

Slang for Simpleton

Historically, the word “lemon” has been used as slang for a simpleton or a loser, someone easily deceived or taken advantage of. Over time, this connotation expanded to objects, especially in the early 1900s, when the term “lemon” began to refer to an item, particularly a car, sold under false pretenses of quality.

Influence of British English

There is also a suggestion that British English influenced this idiom. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people informally used the term “lemon” to denote counterfeit or worthless products. This usage likely crossed over to American English, where it found a specific niche in the context of automobiles and later extended to other defective products.

The Face We Make

A more figurative explanation ties the idiom to the facial expression one makes when tasting something very sour, like a lemon. A grimace of displeasure and surprise is similar to being swindled or making a bad purchase.

Shakespearean Influence

Interestingly, some linguists propose that Shakespeare may have influenced the term’s usage. While this connection is less direct, it is believed that his works, which often included metaphors and expressions involving sourness and bitterness, could have indirectly shaped the idiom’s development over centuries.

See also: when life gives you lemons

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