We all know that “everyone’s a fruit and nut case” — as Cadbury’s told us in the 1970s when we sang along with The Nutcracker fruitcakes. But why is it that the Brits are tutti fruity when it comes to the nicknames historically bestowed on them?
A close look at the names’ origins suggests that the fruit connection is entirely coincidental.
A colloquial name for British sailors, as they commonly sucked on limes (or were given rations of lime juice) to prevent scurvy — a disease caused by lack of vitamin C that was common among seafarers. Originally an insult (and still listed as offensive by the OED), limey is rarely used nowadays. But not to be confused with [cor] blimey, a wonderful British word for wow (derived from “God blind me”).
Pom (also pommy or pommie) is a slang term used in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to describe a British person — especially a recent immigrant. There’s no definitive etymology for the nickname, but most agree that it derives from the name of the succulent Middle Eastern fruit known as the pomegranate. But why that particular fruit? The OED argues that pomegranate is Australian rhyming slang (now defunct) for immigrant. The dictionary cites, as evidence, a line from an article in the 14 November 1912 edition of the Australian newspaper The Bulletin: “The other day a Pummy Grant (assisted immigrant) was handed a bridle and told to catch a horse.” Another explanation for naming Brits after pomegranates is the color they share when British people spend too much time underthe Australian sun. The rhyming slang seems more plausible. Some believe that P.O.M. (or P.O.M.E. or P.O.H.M.E) is an acronym for Prisoner of Mother England, Prisoner of Her Majesty’s Exile, or Prisoner of Millbank (the holding center for prisoners awaiting transport to Australia). Nothing to do with apples, though.
According to Wikipedia, “”Lemon Head” is a term to describe British and other Western nationalities in Malaysia and Singapore. It originates from the Hokkien dialect language referring to the “red hair” British military based in the Straits Settlements after the Second World War.” Wikipedia lists no citations or verifications, and I can’t find a reference to this nickname anywhere else, in any dictionary. Please comment below if you’re familiar with this nickname, which seems to be unrelated to the lime/vitamin C/scurvy etymology, despite the apparent citrus connection.
Other nicknames for Brits:
This strange French nickname for the English started out as an 18th-century gastronomic term describing the English style of cooking beef. Eventually, in the mid 19th century, the term came to describe an Englishman himself. Nice.
The German name for the British is Inselaffen, which means ‘island apes’ or ‘island monkeys’. Well, it’s better than some of the words we use for the Krauts …
Starting life as a character created by political satirist J. Arbuthnot in the 18th century, John Bull — much like America’s Uncle Sam — is England personified, or a typical Englishman, represented in cartoons and caricatures through the centuries. According to Historic-UK.com, “The John Bull character was that of a drinking man, hard-headed, down-to-earth, averse to intellectualism, fond of dogs, horses, ale, and country sports.” Bull faded from the public eye in the 1950s — but many would argue that his characterization of the English man remains true.
A term used by the French during the Hundred Years War to refer to the English soldiers whom they were fighting. The English were notorious for their extreme profanity — and especially for the expletive “God damn”. The nickname is no longer in use. But the British use of profanity is alive and well today.
Nicknames that originated in military contexts:
Black and Tan, or Tan:
The Black and Tans were British men recruited to join the Royal Irish Constabulary and fight against the Irish Republican Party during the Anglo-Irish war. This British Army unit was known for its extreme brutality, and so its name lingered.”Black and Tan” or “Tan” remains a pejorative word used by the Irish to name the British in their midst.
A slang name given to soldiers (usually privates) in the British army, Tommy Atkins — or just plain Tommy — dates back to as early as the 18th century, and was well established by the 19th. It is, however, most closely associated with World War I. It’s widely understood that Tommy Atkins was the name the War Office used in its sample guide for soldiers filling out regulation forms and documents, and the OED bears this out, citing “the casual use of this name in the specimen forms given in the official regulations from 1815 onward.”
Another name for British soldiers, arising from the scarlet uniforms worn historically by most regiments.