i-5829652f66bd6fa183ab85e0f11b4a54-rutabaga.jpgEverybody knows that English has borrowed the words ombudsman and smorgasbord from Swedish. But did you know that rutabaga is another Swedish loan? And that it was borrowed from a rural Swedish dialect, not standard Swedish?

“Rutabaga” is an American word for the kind of turnip known to Englishmen and Australians as swede. Indeed, the plant hybrid probably once arose in Sweden. In standard Swedish, though, it’s called kålrot, “cabbage root” — which is botanically speaking exactly what it is. “Rut-” in “rutabaga” is simply rot, “root”. Bagge (“-baga”) means “ram”, and my speculation is that the big mean turnip was compared affectionately to the bigger meaner kind of sheep. But standard Swedish wouldn’t put that extra -a- between rot and bagge. Unsourced statements around the web suggest that the word rotabagge originated in Västergötland province.

I rarely eat rutabaga. When I do, it’s diced with other veggies in broth soup, or mashed with potatoes to produce the wonderfully sweet and orange rotmos. Or rutamus, as I guess Americans would call it.

I was inspired to write about this by Norm Sherman’s sobering and chilling gangster lyric for his song “Rutabaga“. Their words were all splurred when they sloke!

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  1. #1 Mattias
    January 5, 2010

    According to SAOB and ‘Nyare bidrag till kännedom om de svenska landsmålen och svenskt folklif’ (Stockholm, 1904, XVIII, 8) “rotabagge” has apparently also been used derogatively for gymnasium students. Time to bring new life to this expression, perhaps?

  2. #2 Timo S
    January 5, 2010

    Interesting, taking into acount the time of the year. I mean that “swede casserole” (kålrotslåda) belongs to the traditional Finnish Christmas meal, actually to any (rural, traditional) festive meal, most commonly with ham and mustard. My kålrotslåda tasted this time especially delicious, at least in my own opinion…

  3. #3 Martin R
    January 5, 2010

    Now I know what derogatory term to apply to my son if he behaves badly during his high school years. Samuel, consider yourself warned!

    Timo, yeah, I bet the sweetish rutabaga is really nice with salt ham! A lot like sweet potatoes, actually.

  4. #4 Larry Ayers
    January 5, 2010

    And then there is that Germanic-sounding word “mangel-wurzel”, which I believe refers (referred?) to a variety of rutabaga used as animal feed.

    Carl Sandburg wrote a series of children’s stories called “Rutabaga Tales”.

  5. #5 Jonathan Lubin
    January 5, 2010

    1. I’m very fond of them, because they’re so sweet, yet with a bitter edge that I find appealing. When I arrived in Denmark for a year’s stay and was being driven past a field of rutabagas by my Danish friends, I said, “Good, I can have turnips this winter.” “Oh, no, those are grown only for fodder.” And I never saw a turnip in the grocery stores all winter.
    2. An aunt of mine, daughter of two Scots, told me that a dish made by mixing potatoes and turnips was called “clapshot”.

  6. #6 Kevin
    January 5, 2010

    The Norwegian side of my family calls it kålrabi, which to the rest of the world is a different vegetable entirely. My favorite, though, are the Scots who call them neeps, yielding the festive mashed side-dish bashed neeps.

  7. #7 csrster
    January 5, 2010

    Jonathan: Curious. We often see them in Danish supermarkets.

  8. #8 speedwell
    January 5, 2010

    I was under the impression that rutabaga was an Italian word. Seriously. Oh, well. 🙂

    The main difference between kohlrabi (kålrabi) is that kohlrabi is a brassica stem and not a root.

  9. #9 speedwell
    January 5, 2010

    I seem to have left a piece out of the sentence there, but you get the idea that I meant to compare the rutabaga (and white turnip) to the kohlrabi.

  10. #10 Kevin
    January 5, 2010

    Yeah in Norwegian the true kålrabi is called knutekål. Poor Knut.

  11. #11 Martin R
    January 5, 2010

    Larry, Jon; Mangelwurzel is a fodder beet that is not identical to rutabaga.

    Jon, “clapshot” sounds like a vaccination I should have taken to prepare for the busy months between my marriages.

  12. #12 Adela
    January 5, 2010

    My family drizzles black strap molasses on our buttered mashed neeps, tasty with sausages. They are very easy to grow in the home garden and can overwinter in the planting bed. Very nutritious despite temporary blocking thyroid pick up of iodine.

  13. #13 Jonathan Jarrett
    January 6, 2010

    I was inspired to write about this by Norm Sherman’s sobering and chilling gangster lyric for his song “Rutabaga”

    Whereas for T’anta Wawa and myself the word `rutabaga’ will always trigger the memory of `Call Any Vegetable’ by the Mothers of Invention. Which is no bad thing!

  14. #14 Hawks
    January 9, 2010

    I remember driving past a vegetable stand with an honesty box somewhere in the country side in New Zealand. The farmer had written a sign that said “swedes for sale”. Sounds a bit cruel, does it not?

  15. #15 eleanora.
    January 18, 2010

    I love swede, although I rarely cook them as a separate vegie. Generally I put them in casseroles (tonight’s dinner was stew made with beef, onion, carrot, swede and celery served with rosemary roast potatoes and green beans), and to me they are mandatory in Cornish pasties.

    Kevin mentioned neeps. I was under the impression that neeps are the similar looking, but not as nice tasting, white turnips.

  16. #16 Martin R
    January 18, 2010

    I love swede

    That very good. I love Australian lady. Please do not cook me. Cook turnip, lovely Australian lady! Yes.

  17. #17 Marge
    January 19, 2010

    A Scottish linguistic note – ‘Neeps’ as in ‘Neeps and tatties’ or clapshot to be served with haggis refers to the swede, not the turnip. Scottish people who say ‘turnip’ or ‘neep’ are usually referring to swede/rutabaga.

    Scottish friend had never eaten white turnips, and was confused as to why I called them turnips when everyone knew turnips were yellow!

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