Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

When life hands you lemon-ology

By Mark Peters

If I had a lemon for every time I heard “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” I’d have enough lemons to open a lemons-only Wal-Mart. If I had another lemon for every time I heard a variation like, “When life hands you lemons, run straight home and hide them because the apocalypse is upon us and soon everyone will want them,” I’d have an absolute monopoly on the lemon market, fulfilling my boyhood dreams.

This expression and its variations are everywhere, nowhere more so than on Twitter, the richest source of jokes and un-self-conscious language use we have at the moment. For the month of April, I collected the many mutations of this idiom to look for patterns among the proverbs. Thousands of lemon-y tweets prove this isn’t just a cliché or a snowclone: lemon-ology consists of clichés within clichés, snowclones within snowclones—and every once in awhile, a burst of originality. Here’s a look at the lemon landscape.

First, some lemon history. In Fred Shapiro’s wonderful Yale Book of Quotations, he spots the first example of “If life hands you lemons, make lemonade” on Oct. 4, 1972 in the Dallas Morning News. But he finds this line in 1917: “If life hands you a lemon adjust your rose colored glasses and start to selling pink lemonade.” Sure enough, the Oxford English Dictionary shows handing someone a lemon has meant “to pass off a sub-standard article as good; to swindle (a person), to do (someone) down” since at least 1906.

Over a hundred years later, one of the most common forms of lemon subversion basically says, “Screw lemonade. How about some booze?” The alcohol-related suggestions all involve using the lemons in some kind of drink, like so: “When life hands you lemons find some vodka and make margaritas!” Hundreds of tweets are almost identical, though the booze-soaked suggestions do get a little more creative: “When life hands you lemons, have a tequila shot…errr crap, can’t for a week, darn antibiotics!

Other distortions use the lemon juice not as an alcohol-enhancer but as a potential torture device, as in “If life hands you lemons, find an annoying guy with paper-cuts and make it worthwhile.” Here’s a more self-serving, self-abusing approach: “When life hands you lemons, squirt one in your eye and go on disability. Then sue the guy that grew them. He’s got insurance for that!” And here’s one for the S&M crowd: “When life hands me lemons, I put on my leathers and squeeze the juice into the eyes of the man hogtied & ballgagged in my closet.

Violent variations go far beyond the painful properties of lemon juice. Various tweeters say you should take the lemons and “throw them at hobos,” “hurl them at a random CEO,” “freeze them so they can knock people unconscious,” “open a lemon aide stand and use the proceeds to buy an assault rifle,” “put them in a tube sock and beat a hipster over the head with it,” “whip them at those dumb jerk kids who set up lemonade stands to show them how you feel about their price gouging,” or “shove them down the bastard’s throat and laugh maniacally as he chokes to death.” I kinda like the bluntness here: “If life hands you lemons punch life in the head.”

Many people reject life’s handoff by saying something like “throw them back and demand a king size Twix!” Others subvert the expression by making something non-lemony. I spotted eleventy-zillion tweets like this: “When life hands you lemons, make apple juice. Then sit back and watch the world wonder how you did it.” Instead of lemonade, people plug in grape juice, roast beef, chocolate milk, peach tea, pickles, a peanut butter sandwich, and just about any other food imaginable. I suspect these variations are inspired by the theme song of the Andy Milanokis Show, which includes the lyric “When life hands me lemons, I make beef stew.”

That Milanokis line is one of several famous lemon twists that are nearly as beat to death as the original. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Paul Rudd’s stoned surf-instructor character said, “When life hand you lemons, just say fuck the lemons and bail.” Then there’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, an album by Atmosphere. The king of the one-liner Jack Handey also got lemony in his Deep Thoughts series, writing, “If life deals you lemons, why not go kill someone with the lemons (maybe by shoving them down his throat)”.

I’m not so sure about the origin of other oft-repeated versions, but I suspect makers of funny t-shirts are to blame. I saw this one a lot: “If lemons hands you life, you’re probably dyslexic.” Sometimes the punchline of that one is “You’re drunk” instead. I spotted “When life hands you lemons, just be glad it wasn’t herpes” a few times, as well many repetitions of this Wonderbra-esque idea: “When life hands you lemons, stuff them down your bra to make your boobs look bigger.

So is there any way to make a fresh lemon-ism? I hope so, because I’m among the hordes who keep trying. I think this was my best attempt at a lemon-fresh proverb: “When life hands you lemons, hand life hand grenades. Then put the moves on life’s wife, the lovely Veronica.” This Chris Angel tweet might be the best one I found in April: “When life hands you lemons, make high powered nuclear explosives and get back at life. I have a limited understanding of how science works.” I also enjoyed this spin by Jason Arnopp: “When life hands you lemons, feel free to question how such an abstract, generic concept has managed to give you fruit.

I’ve learned from experience not to solicit in bus-station bathrooms or the final paragraph of columns, but I have to make an exception in the interests of linguistic lemon-ology. Out of the umpty-bazillion variations of this expression, there must a kabillion I missed and one or two you enjoy. Please share them. Give me your lemons—your poor, huddled lemons. Let’s make them into Internet-comment-ade.

Mark Peters is a lexicographer, humorist, rabid tweeter, language columnist for Visual Thesaurus, and the blogger behind The Rosa Parks of Blogs and The Pancake Proverbs.

Recent Comments

  1. Zach

    I can’t believe you managed to write this whole thing based on data collected in April and didn’t make one mention of portal 2, which has the Internet fired up about lemons right now.

Comments are closed.