You’ve probably never thought of it, but potatoes are a big part of our language. If you’re a meat-and-potatoes type of guy who likes to veg out, you might be a couch potato. If you post a poor quality picture on the internet, you might be accused of taking it with a potato instead of a camera. Do you want fries with that? Potato idioms are global, and they go way back.
The records of the pre-Columbian and immediately post-contact Andes are not particularly good, but we do have some records that suggest that the potato had such a place in the Quechuan languages of the mountain population. According to a 17th-century Jesuit priest who spent time in these communities, the time a potato takes to cook was used as a shorthand division of time, so one might say that it took someone three pots of potatoes to build a roof. That continues to this day. According to the book Food, Power, and Resistance in the Andes: Exploring Quechua Verbal and Visual Narratives, by Alison Krögel, referring to potatoes can be used to cut a local down to size. If someone from the mountain region begins to put on the airs of a coastal resident of big-city Lima, a friend might say that they are “tan Cusqueño como la papa wayru,” meaning that they’re actually no more cosmopolitan than a local mountain potato.
Not all potato idioms are negative. Other languages use the potato to convey everything getting enough to eat to a lumpy shape. What these idiom have in common is their commonality, because everyone understands potatoes. Find out how potatoes have infused language at Atlas Obscura.
(Image credit: Aïda Amer)