The Grammarphobia Blog

A noble stand of lime trees?

Q: This isn’t exactly a language question, but in a way it is. I was reading one of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels and I saw a reference to a noble or stately stand of lime trees. Are there noble stands of lime trees in England?

A: The simple answer is yes, but not much is simple in the language world.

The English, it turns out, use the term “lime tree” to refer to what Americans would call a linden. The word “lime” in this case appears to be an alteration of the Old English terms “lind” and “linde,” which gave us the word “linden.”

The tree, whether you call it a “lime” or a “linden,” is a member of the genus Tilia, which includes some two and a half dozen species, including American and European lindens. European lindens can grow to 100 feet or so, and they are indeed noble and stately.

The linden (or, if you prefer, the lime tree) isn’t related to the shrubs and small trees that give us limes and other fruit from members of the genus Citrus (grapefruit, lemon, orange, etc.). But I’ve heard from fellow gardeners that citrus plants can grow outdoors in sheltered areas of southern England. (The fictional county of Barsetshire is believed to be modeled after Somersetshire in southwestern England.)

The first published references for the use of “lime tree” to mean linden date from the early 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Lime trees figure in the works of many English writers, including Dryden, Pope, Swift, Austen, Tennyson, and Trollope. In The Warden (1855), the first of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, the Rev. Septimus Harding paces “hour after hour, under those noble lime-trees.”

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