A History of Vegetable Metaphors, from Cool Cukes to Couch Potatoes
When journalist Ezra Klein announced that his new online publication, Vox, will report political news without the obligatory “eat your vegetables” mindset of most popular news media, that got us thinking: Since when did vegetables get such a bad rap? Also: Why you gotta be all anti-vegetable, dude? We totally agree that vegetables are absolutely delicious when cooked well. (Are we cool, Ezra? We know you’re all into food and stuff.)
And while we were at this thinking thing, we started wondering what other vegetable metaphors were out there to explore and love. Here are a few of our favorites—plus their origins.
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Two Peas in a Pod
Precious. This phrase is meant to signify that two people are so similar, they’re almost identical. And although now it’s typically used to describe best friends, writer and poet John Lyly penned the phrase in Euphues and his England in 1580: “Wherin I am not unlike unto the unskilfull Painter, who having drawen the Twinnes of Hippocrates, (who wer as lyke as one pease is to an other).” The word “pease” was used as the singular form of “pea” in Tudor England, though it’s since been phased out of our lexicon. No word on whether or not Lyly had a bestie.
Carrot and Stick
If someone dangled a carrot in front of your nose, would you do whatever they wanted? Probably not—but then you’re also probably not a donkey. (But if you are, congratulations on having read this far into the story!) This phrase originally referred to edible incentives for work donkeys, mules, and horses. Conventional wisdom has the ol’ carrot-and-stick routine dating back to the 1876, though one of the best-known uses is Winston Churchill’sWorld War II reference. (Do not, however, confuse said reference with the actual carrots on sticks fed to children in World War II.)
To get to the bottom of the term “couch potato,” we consulted The Potato Museum (yes, there is one). This phrase is so well-loved that it has a specific birthday: July 15, 1976, in Pasadena, California. Legend has it that in a phone conversation, an ordinary man named Tom Iacino used the term to describe his loafing habits. In fact, Iacino was such a proponent of the sedentary lifestyle that he led a movement of like-minded people eager to give up their healthy California lifestyles in favor of hanging out, tuber-like, in front of the boob tube. Historically speaking, this “movement” never gained much ground, but Iacino and his friend Bob Armstrong did produce T-shirts, books, and newsletters honoring the humble couch potato and its habits. What more can you expect from two guys who took a stand against productivity?
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Cool as a Cucumber
On a hot July day, ever thought to yourself, “Man, I wish I were literally inside a cucumber right now?” You should: A cuke’s interior is an average of 20 degrees colder than the air temperature. The phrase dates back to the 1730s, from British poet John Gay‘s A New Song of New Similes. Also possible explanation: Cucumbers look great in sunglasses.
Just Fell Off the Turnip Truck
Ouch—talk about fightin’ words! This mean-spirited phrase implies that someone is ignorant, naive, or gullible. Most sources agree it’s meant to poke fun at “simple folk,” like farmers and the goods they provided. A famine in Europe in 1836 left most folks with nothing to eat but turnips, and while the phrasing probably didn’t originate then (it being 1836 with no trucks, and all), It can also signify that someone’s new in town and is out of his or her element.