The fruit and its leaves, known botanically as Citrus hystrix, are native to Sri Lanka and are also found in Mauritius and South East Asia, where the plant is known as Makrut.

It is thought it became known as kaffir lime in reference to the Kaffirs ethnic group in Sri Lanka who traditionally smeared it on their legs and feet to ward off leeches.

However, the word kaffir also became a term for a non-Muslim, or disbeliever, in Arabic, which was in turn applied to sub-saharan Africans who did not practice Islam. From here it became a racist insult used by South African whites against the country’s indigenous population.

And of course we do not use the word any more because we’re aware.

But do Arabs?

Would, for example, Nesrine Malik, that Sudanese Arab, use the word to refer to sub-Saharan non-believers?

11 thoughts on “Etymology”

  1. Muslims in the UK use a variation of it to describe non believers.

    There was an Israeli jet, a Mirage clone called a Kfir. I think it means lion cub. And there is that funny yoghurt drink called kefir.

  2. Philip Scott Thomas

    For some reason, if you do a Google image search for the bergamot orange fruit, most of the pictures will be of the makrut/kaffir lime. The two are easy to tell apart, not least because they are different shapes and the lime is lumpy, not round like a bergamot.

    Somebody somewhere somewhen got the two confused and people have been copying and pasting ever since.

  3. I thought it was also an ethnic group in their own right originally in SA? As in the 1st,2nd (3rd?) Kaffir wars. Might have what the Euros called them but indicates at some point it was descriptive rather than derogatory.

  4. The Meissen Bison

    The OED gives us:

    Kaffir prop. Kafir, n. and a.

    (ˈkæfə(r), ˈkɑːfɪr)

    Also kaffer, kaffir, kafir, kaffre; and see caffre.

    [a. Arab. kāfir infidel: see caffre.]

    A. n.

    1. = caffre 1, ‘infidel’, Giaour.

    2. a. = caffre 2; one of a South African race belonging to the Bântu family. Also attrib., and as the name of their language. Also, usu. disparagingly, with reference to any Black African; transf., as a term of opprobrium, a white man who associates with or is thought to favour Black Africans.

    b. pl. The Stock Exchange term for South African mine shares. Also attrib.

    3. Usu. Kafir. A member of a people inhabiting the Hindu Kush mountains of north-east Afghanistan; Kafir harp, a primitive harp with four or five strings used by this people.

    4. attrib. and comb. Kaffir beer, an alcoholic beverage brewed from Kaffir corn by the Black inhabitants of S. Africa; Kaffirboetie (ˈkæfəbuːtiː) S. Afr. [partial tr. Afrikaans Kafferboetie, f. Kaffer Kaffir + boetie little brother], an opprobrious term for a Negrophil; Kaffir-boom [Du. boom tree] = Kaffir-tree; Kaffir bread, the name of several species of South African cycads with edible pith; Kaffir Circus Stock Exchange slang, the body of brokers who operate in ‘Kaffirs’, or the place where they operate; Kaffir corn, Indian millet, Sorghum vulgare; Kaffir crane, a name formerly used for the crowned crane, Balearica pavonina regulorum, which is grey with a tuft of black feathers on top of its head; Kaffir date or plum, or Kaffir’s scimitar tree, a South African tree, Harpephyllum caffrum, family Anacardiaceæ; Kaffir finch, fink, the red bishop-bird, Pyromelana oryx, or a closely related bird of the sub-family Ploceinæ; Kaffirland, the land of the Kaffirs; Kaffir lily, a herb of the family Iridaceæ, Schizostylis coccinea, bearing spikes of gladiolus-like flowers; also = clivia; Kaffir (water-)melon, either of two species of melon, Citrullus caffer or C. vulgaris; Kaffir orange, a shrub or small tree of the genus Strychnos, esp. S. pungens, or its fruit; Kaffir piano, a S. African marimba or xylophone; Kaffir pot, an iron cooking-pot usu. on three short metal legs; Kaffir’s scimitar tree = Kaffir date above; Kaffir tea, the plant Helichrysum nudifolium; Kaffir(‘s) tree, a South African leguminous tree, Erythrina caffra; Kaffir truck S. Afr., term applied to small miscellaneous general goods for barter or sale.

    B. adj. S. Afr. slang. Bad, unreliable.

  5. “And of course we do not use the word any more because we’re aware…”

    I would have had little use for the term, but now I will strenuously seek out opportunities for using it.

  6. “it became a racist insult used by South African whites against the country’s indigenous population.” No; they used it mainly of the Bantu – who are completely non-indigenous. Hell, they settled much of South Africa after the cloggies, not before.

  7. British Caffraria was that border region now known as the Eastern Cape where there is a climate transition to summer rainfall(suitable for sorghum and maize subsistence agriculture as practised by the isiXhosa) into an area of erratic rainfall where the isiXhosa could only graze their cattle if favourable. This marked the westernmost settlement by the Bantu. The British attempted to protect the border with the Cape of Good Hope (arable regions winter rainfall unsuited to traditional Bantu agriculture and semidesert inland) at the Great Fish River, hence the Kaffir Wars. The British nabbed the Cape of Good Hope as part of the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. It was a huge drain on the Empire as a colony, both because of size and poverty until diamonds were discovered many decades later.
    The plants with the k word all come from this border region eg Erythrina caffra, all tough because adapted to an erratic climate.

  8. Ljh. Was it as big a drain as Australia? I seem to remember reading in Fortescue’s ‘History of the British Army’ that the UK was considering simply abandoning Oz; but then gold was discovered.

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