You turnip! Vegetable insults around the world

Which to choose, from such an embarrassment of possibilities?

In Zambia, an opposition politican has been charged with defamation for comparing the president to a potato. Speaking on the radio earlier this week, Frank Bwalya described president as ‘chumbu mushololwa’, an expression in the Bemba language which, according to the BBC website, refers to ‘a sweet potato that breaks when it is bent and is used to describe someone who does not listen to advice’. It found guilty, Mr Bwalya faces a prison sentence of up to five years.

Personally, I think I’d find it more insulting to be compared to a kohlrabi – not the world’s loveliest vegetable, even if it’s delicious. (A friend and I were wondering how many years you would get for that – perhaps even execution?)

This is not the first time that Zambia has seen controversy over vegetable-based insults. In 2002 the editor of an independent newspaper, Fred M’membe, was arrested for calling the president a ‘cabbage’: a slight also recognised in the English language (as is the more general ‘vegetable’).

In Chinese, it’s common to insult someone by calling them a ‘stupid melon’ (傻瓜 sha gua), and those seen as sell-outs to their ethnic heritage may be called ‘bananas’ – because a banana is ‘yellow on the outside, white on the inside’. In Communist societies in Europe, much worse was to be labelled a ‘radish’, because radishes are ‘red on the outside and white on the inside’, and therefore potentially counter-revolutionary. And a black person may be offended to be called a ‘coconut’ – ‘black on the outside, white on the inside’.

It would be interesting to hear about fruit and vegetable insults in other cultures and languages, if anyone knows any! And what would be the worst vegetable or fruit to be called?

11 Responses to “You turnip! Vegetable insults around the world”

  1. Gonçalo

    Turnip – “nabo” – is actually used in European Portuguese, meaning dumb, stupid, or just clumsy in a specific task.

  2. David

    Finocchio, meaning fennel, is used in Italian as a derogatory term for a gay man.

    The root of this is unclear, but a Google search for this brings up a number of theories. One rather gruesome hypothesis comes up a number of times and tells of how, during the Inquisition, fennels were thrown onto bonfires after gay men had been burnt at the stake to cover up the smell of burning flesh. There is no documented evidence of this however.

    Another theory comes from the popular use of fennel seeds in Italy to season meat, especially sausages. Fennel seeds were worthless to Italians when compared to costly spices imported from the East, which likely explains the saying ‘essere come il finocchio nella salsicca’ (to be like fennel in a sausage). In medieval times, a finocchio was a ‘persona dappoco, infida’ (a worthless, treacherous person), or a ‘uomo spregevole’ (a contemptible man).

    Its modern usage seems to have gained traction in the post war period.

    (Source, in IT:

  3. Sabine

    I can’t think of any vegetable used as a personal insult in German, but a regional word for cabbage (“Kappes” as opposed to the standard German “Kohl”) can mean “bullshit”: “Das ist totaler Kappes!” translates as “That’s complete bullshit”.

  4. Fuchsia

    Some good examples tweeted in response to this post:

    other veg slander: “carrot top” = ginger, “he’s bananas” = mad or daft, “beanpole” = too skinny+tall.

    In Italian, finocchio (fennel) is used to describe someone who is a homosexual

    Korea, “mu”–daikon radish–is the choice description for someone’s fat lower legs–“cankles” in America…

    Okra! Little slimy gooey things. YUK!

    ‘espece de patate’ in French. A nice insult, ok for use when children present. Rough translation ‘you silly potato head

    and, worse: patate pourri, or rotten potato. Not to mention kakaboudin.

    “face of a celeriac, brain of a cauliflower”….I’m sure I’ve heard that before…maybe I dreamt it…..?

    pea brain?

    calling someone a “streak of celery” is pretty offensive but one I’ve employed in the past

    in our house your ‘noodles’ are your rude bits (either gender). No idea why the children coined it

    Not a vegetable, but in our house ‘you noodle’ means ‘you wally’ – inverted from ‘use your noodle’, ie think about it

    ‏@auntielucia2 by contrast, it,s an insult to b called huan su (sweet potato in Hokein) as that means “stupid”.

    in Singapore n Malaysia, it could be a compliment to be called a chilli padi ie small but very hot.

  5. Susanne

    Like Sabine, I’m not familiar with vegetable insults in German, but theres somthing with nuts….”stupid nut”….for a stupid person, of course.

  6. Harvey

    In Japan when a kabuki player is being boring the audience is likely to shout “Daikon”, presumably since daikon are rather bland tasting.

  7. Harvey

    Further to the comment about “daikon”: one can think of a new word “archdaikon” to describe someone who is ultra-boring.

  8. Crazy Chef

    In Hindi, “kaddu” (कद्दू – pumpkin) can be used to refer to someone as a blockhead (similar to the German “dummkopf”.)

  9. Petit Con

    Nasu 茄子 🍆 is a very common insult in Japan for someone who is stupid.

    otanko-nasu: eggplant with ash = fool
    dote kabocha: bank pumpkin

    some vegetable words used pejoratively:

    moyashi: bean sprout = a spineless child
    daikon ashi: radish legs = big legs

  10. Katherine

    Not fruit nor vegetable exactly, but…

    Growing up second-generation Chinese-American, the shorthand the adults used for us was “bamboo,” because bamboo is closed on both ends, and we were neither really Chinese nor really American.

    Also, my grandfather used to refer to homeless people on the street as “fried squid,” because they curled up in their blankets like squid curled up when fried.

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