Jacquie and Rich are a fabulous singer-songwriter duo called Small Potatoes. They’ve been a big part of the household soundtrack these days, so darned if they didn’t inspire this post.
Potato entered English in the 1560s form the Spanish patata. The Spanish borrowed the word from the people of Haiti, who called their native sweet potato batata. The paler tuber brought to Europe in 1565 from Peru is the tuber most first-world folks think of today as the potato: the potato of Idaho, of Ireland, of infamous emigration-inspiring famines, though it wasn’t called a potato until 1590. Oddly, this interloper was referred to both as the Virginia potato (geographic confusion, you say?), or the bastard potato (at the time it had to play second fiddle to the sweet potato).
The word tuber came to English in the 1660s from a Latin word meaning thick underground stem. It’s Proto-Indo-European root tubh-, which meant to swell, also gave us the word thigh.
My preferred term for potatoes is spuds, a word first applied to our friend the potato in New Zealand about 1845. Though nobody’s sure, spud appears to have come to English from Danish or Old Norse, where it meant spear, lance, & spade. That third meaning might certainly lead to spud’s modern meaning, though at some point in the 1680s English speakers also began using the word spud to refer to a short stumpy person or thing. Hmmm.
Have a minute? Check out Rich & Jacquie singing a ridiculous Who’s-On-First type song all about a traveling salesman meeting the Knott family: Shirley, Mae Bea & Wy.
Have another minute? Please leave a comment about all these potato-related etymologies, or about the musical group, Small Potatoes.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Etymonline, Merriam Webster, the OED.
I write for teens & tweens, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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