One potato, two potatoes: the linguistic and nutritional value of spuds
Plump, dirty, and riddled with dimples, the humble potato rarely gets the attention it deserves — unless, of course, Peru and Chile are arguing over who produced them first. I think potatoes should fill us with a sense of awe. Hear me out. Not only can they be scalloped, mashed, and French fried, but potatoes can also be used to make stamps, spirits, and salad. Those taters are versatile little beggars, even in terms of language.
A linguistically versatile veggie
Those of you who didn’t know September was National Potato Month probably also missed that potato can be used as a noun and a verb. And when used as a modifier, potato can also pass for an adjective (think potato pancake). With roots in the mid-16th century, the word potato comes from the Spanish word patata. In English, potato came to denote the sweet potato in particular, until the late 16th century, when the word began to refer to other varieties, including white, golden, purple, and red.
Most know potato as a noun — an edible tuber grown in the ground, a vegetable used in countless dishes around the world. In rare instances, the word is also used as a transitive verb, meaning ‘to provide with potatoes; to plant (land) with potatoes; to accompany (a dish) with potatoes; to pelt with potatoes.’ Watch out, bad comedians; potatoes will definitely leave bigger bruises than tomatoes.
Couch potatoes and potato heads
As most know, the word potato shows up in many popular English sayings: hot potato, couch potato, potato head, the children’s song ‘One Potato, Two Potatoes‘, small potatoes, meat and potatoes, and as the Gershwin brothers penned for the movie ‘Shall We Dance‘ (1937): ‘You like potato, and I like potahto. You like tomato, and I like tomahto. Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto.’ The potato also took the spotlight in 1992, when then U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle publicly misspelled ‘potatoe’ during a sixth-grade spelling bee that he was leading. What a potato head!
The phrase potato head first appeared in John Michelborne’s Ireland Preserv’d in 1705 and has since been associated with Irishness, unfortunately. Let’s give the Irish a break, OK? The OED’s first entry for potato head states: ‘a person’s head likened to a potato, either in appearance, as being large, bald, ugly, etc., or as implying stupidity’. The fact that many potato sayings have negative connotations supports my thesis that potatoes, in general, are undervalued. I know they’re cheap and easy to grow, but isn’t that a good thing?
If we look at the meaning behind couch potato, you will see that the poor potato continues to get a bad rap. Who knew couch potato began as a pun? According to the OED, boob tube is a chiefly North American colloquial term for the television set. So, beginning in the 1960s, the loafer on the sofa became known as a boob-tuber (television addict + vegetable tuber). Today’s version of the boob-tuber would likely be the YouTuber. Luckily, the pun still applies.
The value of the potato
Joking aside, I suggest we reclaim the value of the potato. Although dirty and misshapen, let’s celebrate its versatility. Plus, isn’t it on fleek to embrace bodily imperfections? We must stop fat-shaming the tubby tuber. Not every Idaho can be a fingerling. Potatoes of all shapes and sizes are welcome (in my belly).
That brings up another point: Potatoes get the cold shoulder in most diets, too. Atkins proponents shun them for having too many carbs. Others knock their starchiness. Processed versions, including French fries and hash browns, are the worst offenders for anyone looking to cut calories. Our little patatas just can’t catch a break. Here’s what you might not know. Potatoes, both white and sweet, are rich sources of dietary fiber, especially if you eat the skins. They also contain a high amount of vitamin C and potassium.
The potato has value both linguistically and nutritionally, so let’s give it the cachet it deserves. Pump up the potato. Tout the tuber. Begin using it as a verb. Why not potato your beef tenderloin before the next potluck? Paying homage to potato’s Spanish roots, I leave you with this recipe for tortilla española — the ‘meat and potatoes’ of all tapas. And if you take this dish to a gathering during National Potato Month, you are no ‘small potatoes’.