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Why Are Potatoes Called Spuds?

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Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his "Daily Knowledge" newsletter, click here.


One commonly cited explanation for why we call potatoes spuds goes like this: A 19th century activist group called The Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet, or SPUD, was formed to keep potatoes out of Britain. This group didn't want anyone eating the tubers. The story was perpetuated in Mario Pei's 1949 book, The Story of Language.

But it's clear that Pei was wrong about where the nickname originated, for one very good reason: Previous to the mid-20th century, abbreviations were prevalent in text, but pronouncing them as words was not something people typically did—that's a very modern phenomenon. In fact, according to linguist David Wilton, “There is only one known pre-20th-century [English] word with an acronymic origin, and it was in vogue for only a short time in 1886. The word is 'colinderies' or 'colinda,' an acronym for the Colonial and Indian Exposition held in London in that year.” (No surprise, then, that the word “acronym” didn’t pop up until 1943.)

The explanation for why we sometimes refer to potatoes as spuds is much simpler.

Among other definitions, a spud is a sharp, narrow spade used to dig up large-rooted plants. Around the mid-19th century—the first documented reference occurs in 1845 in New Zealand—this implement of destruction began lending its name to one of the things it was often used to dig up: potatoes. Eventually, the nickname caught on throughout the English-speaking world.

The ultimate origin of the word “spud” isn’t known. It first appeared in English around 1440 and referred to a short dagger, possibly from the Dutch spyd, the Old Norse spjot (spear), or the Latin spad (sword). Whatever the case, after the 15th century, the meaning of the word expanded: Instead of referring just to “a short dagger,” a spud could be one of various types of digging implements—and, eventually, referred to those tubers we all know and love.

Interestingly, when potatoes were first introduced to Europe, they met with a lot of resistance for a variety of reasons. Some people thought they were poisonous (before wild potatoes were domesticated, they actually were poisonous—and sprouts still are), while others refused to eat them because they weren’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible.

Check out more interesting articles from Daven over at Today I Found Out and subscribe to his Daily Knowledge newsletter here.

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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Belly flops are the least-dignified—yet most painful—way of making a serious splash at the pool. Rarely do they result in serious physical injury, but if you’re wondering why an elegant swan dive feels better for your body than falling stomach-first into the water, you can learn the laws of physics that turn your soft torso a tender pink by watching the SciShow’s video below.

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