Why Potatoes Are Also Called Spuds

It turns out plenty of widely circulated info that's passed off as the history of potatoes is basically made up. Frankly, this underappreciated vegetable — yes, indeed, the potato is still called a vegetable, despite repeated efforts to scratch it off the USDA veggie guidelines — deserves to be spoken of with some degree of accuracy, at least.

The lore surrounding how potatoes got their nickname, "spud," was at some point erroneously attached to The Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet (SPUD) that tried to nix potatoes from getting established in the U.K. in the late 1800s. Apparently, the group had a religious bone to pick with potatos due to the notion that God supposedly neglected to mention them in the Bible, as reported by British American Dictionary. Additionally, potatoes were persona non grata since their early varieties were poisonous and skepticism around their safety lingered long after.

Making that connection, however, is anachronistic, according to Daven Hiskey of Mental Floss. He points out that a nickname hailing from that timeframe would not have been an acronym, since sounding out an acronym as its own word did not become commonplace until the 1940s. The ire the potato faced in that day, deserving or not, is not the reason potatoes are also called spuds.

How did potatoes actually get the "spud" nickname? If you have ever been assigned the cold, hard, late-September chore of digging up potatoes, dubbing them "spuds" is about to make perfect sense.

A spud is a spade

A spud, essentially, is a spade — although, to be honest, it more closely resembles a hoe, but let's not start splitting hairs. The spud, "...is a European tool used hundreds of years ago," reported television personality Joe Snedeker for ABC affiliate WNEP-TV. It has a narrow flat head bent 90 degrees for easy slicing into the ground and digging out root vegetables, like the potato. According to Merriam-Webster, the word "spud" first popped up in the 1650s, but around 1845, New Zealanders picked up the habit of calling potatoes the same name as the tool used to excavate them.

That nickname stuck as potatoes gained in popularity across Europe and America. However, modern American discourse surrounding all things potato uses the word "spud" only sparingly, if at all, compared to New Zealand vernacular that still uses the nickname almost interchangeably with the word potato.

The unrelenting popularity of the potato, today grown from South America to the United States, remains steady. Thanks to its robust nutritional heft and how relatively easy it is to grow, it ranks fourth among the world's most important crops (via BBC). The poor potato still has its detractors hoping to eject potatoes from school lunches and government-recommended dietary guidelines due to its considerable starch. However, if the past is prologue, neither religious zealots from yore nor academicians' starchy accusations will keep a good spud down.