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Why Are English Sailors Called Limeys?

By Corinne Corte
Illustrated by CJ Kazilek

show/hide words to know

  • Ascorbic acid: the scientific term for vitamin C... more
  • Essential vitamin: a vitamin is called essential when we need to get it from our diet.
  • Hypothesis: something taken to be true for the purpose of experimentation or argument.
  • Scurvy: disease caused by vitamin C deficiency.
  • Slang: sometimes playful, and informal words or speech that can also be used in a negative manner to describe people or places.
  • Vitamin C: an essential vitamin found in fruits and vegetables such as oranges, strawberries, broccoli and peppers... more
  • Vitamin deficiency: when you do not eat enough of the vitamin.

Images in this article are linked to more information.

Imagine you are on a sailing ship in 1747. You left England only a couple of months ago and you felt fine. Now you are so tired you can barely walk. Your gums are swollen and so sore it hurts when you are eating. Your teeth are falling out. When you look at your legs you notice they are swollen and purple from bruising.sailors

Lucky for you, a passenger on your ship is very interested in your condition. His name is Dr. James Lind. Dr. Lind wants to discover what is causing you so much pain that you can't work. After examining all the sailors on the ship he finds 11 more sailors that feel the same as you do. Dr. Lind divides you into six groups with two sailors in each group. On May 20, 1747 he is ready to begin the first clinical nutrition experiment.

How did he conduct his experiment?

Dr. Lind hypothesized that something was missing from the diet of all the sailors who were sick. By giving each group different treatments he hoped to locate what was missing from the diet of you and your fellow sailor's. Here is a list of what Dr. James Lind gave each group:

  • group 1 drank one quart of cider a day
  • group 2 gargled with sulfuric acid
  • group 3 had two spoonfuls of vinegar, 3 times a day
  • group 4 drank 1/2-pint seawater a day
  • group 5 drank barley water
  • group 6 (you & another sailor) ate two oranges and 1 lemon a day

What happened?

Only you and the other lucky sailor who ate the oranges and lemon felt better. In fact, in only six days you felt great and were able to start working again. The other sailors in the experiment felt worse.ABC vitamins illustration

This is a real story. Dr. Lind had discovered the missing nutrient in your diet. Can you guess what made you feel better? If you guessed that it was from the vitamin C in the oranges and the lemon you ate, you are correct!

The disease you and your fellow sailors were suffering from is scurvy. Scurvy is a disease caused by a vitamin C deficiency.

When the sailors began their voyage they had fresh fruits and vegetables on their ship. Fruits and vegetables are hard to keep fresh, so the sailors had to eat them right away. If the sailors were at sea for many months they would not have fruits and vegetables for most of this time.

Vitamin C is mainly found in fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, lemons, strawberries, and melons; or it is found in vegetables such as broccoli and bell peppers.

 How many of these foods do you eat regularly?

scurvy nowScurvy was a huge problem for English sailors in the 1600s and 1700s. Because of what Dr. James Lind discovered, the Royal Navy made sure that all sailors had lemon juice to drink when they were at sea for longer than one month. The sailors thought that it was the acid content of the lemon juice that cured scurvy (vitamin C is also called ascorbic acid). Doctors thought that lime juice would work better because it has more acid than lemon juice, so they substituted lime juice for lemon juice on the English Royal Navy ships.

And that is how the English sailors became known as Limeys! Since that time the word has been used as a negative slang term to describe British Nationals, and is therefore not considered a polite word to use.


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