Why Are Potatoes Called Spuds?

Posted on 26 Aug 2014 21:54

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The story of how potatoes came to be called spuds is a mundane one. As if often the case with such boring word origins, a fanciful explanation for the derivation of spuds is often given. This explanation is owed to the potato once being a much-maligned root in Britain and Europe. In fact, when the potato was first introduced to Europe via the Spanish, in the 16th century, it was only grown as a curiosity in botanical gardens. As for food, it was considered only fit for pigs and, perhaps, poor country folks.

The fact that it was a member of the deadly nightshade family didn't help, and the potato was blamed for many ailments, including tuberculosis, rickets, and syphilis. Perhaps not too far off the mark, it was also said to cause obesity, but, in addition, the potato was even blamed for war! The Russians called it the "Devil's Apple."

In Britain in the 1800's, there was a group of activists who were dedicated to stamping out the potato. they called themselves the Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet. This "just so happened" to spell out the acronym SPUD. Some etymologists claimed that this was the origin for the potato being called a spud.

Since the word spuddy was once the nickname for a seller of bad potatoes, it has also been supposed that the word spud derived from this. However, the word spud is almost certainly earlier.


Yet another curious suggestion for the origin of spud for potato has to do with another name for a potato that is common in Ireland: Murphy. Since, for some reason, people named Murphy inevitably get the nickname Spud, and potatoes are sometimes called "Murphy," the name Spud was also applied to potatoes. However, it is more likely, and often suggested, that the nickname of Spud for people named Murphy has to do with the name Murphy being one of the most common surnames in Ireland: "As common as potatoes."

Edit (12/4/2017): A reader, whose name is Murphy and who has travelled all over Ireland has written to inform me that, although he was of course interested in the Murphy/Spud connection, he never, in all his travels, heard the potato referred to as a murphy. Although this may have been an older usage that has died out, it is likely that the above suggested origin for the word spud is not credible.

Actual Origin of Spud for Potatoes

The word spud for potatoes has actually been around since at least the 1840s. It came from a digging tool used to dig up potatoes. A 'spud' used for potato digging was a narrow bladed spade. Other such tools were called spuds as well and were used for a variety of purposes, such as digging weeds. A spud was more or less a small spade. See The humble spatula's linguistic origins, by Neal Whitman, for the origins of spade and another food related word, spatula.

Other Potato Nicknames

Spud, of course, is not the only nickname for the potato. In Ireland, a potato is sometimes called a pratie. Also used is the word fata. Both of these probably derived from patata or prata. Country folk in the U.S. sometimes call potatoes taters and every kid, of course, loves a Tater Tot. This tater for potato is actually fairly common in Wales. Also used in Ireland is the curious name Murphy, as mentioned above. It is possible that this nickname came from a highly successful potato grower, being similar to O'Brien's potato and Gleeson's potato, but with the word potato omitted. However, the explanation given above, that the name Murphy was so common people named Murphy are given the nickname Spud, led to the potato, by extension, being called Murphy. For more information on potato names, as well as general potato history, see The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe N. Salaman.

1. Salaman, Redcliffe N., W. G. Burton, and J. G. Hawkes. The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.
2. Wilton, David. Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. New York: Oxford UP, 2004.
3. Merriam-Webster. The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories. N.p.: Merriam-Webster, 1991.
4. Thorne, Tony. Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
5. Partridge, Eric, and Jacqueline Simpson. The Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
6. Wedgwood, Hensleigh. A Dictionary of English Etymology. Vol. 3 (Q-Z). London: Turner, 1865.

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