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Mangel-wurzel

Q From Chris Sheldon: Any idea where the phrase mangle worzel for a large white turnip comes from?

A Root vegetables aren’t the most sexy things either to eat or write about but I hope to show that this one’s an exception. Let’s get a couple of important things right before we go any further — its name is usually written mangel-wurzel and it isn’t a relative of the turnip but a large variety of beet, closely related to the sugar beet and the beetroot or red beet.

Mind you, many people have been confused about it down the years. These root vegetables all look alike to the non-specialist and we don’t even all have the same names for them. The British swede is the rutabaga in the US, for example, the latter name having been taken from an old dialect Swedish word for this type of turnip. (Brits call it a swede because it was bred in Sweden in the eighteenth century; the Scots name for it is neep, as in bashed neeps, or mashed turnips, a traditional accompaniment to the famous haggis). But when H L Mencken wrote in The American Language in 1921 that Englishmen “still call the rutabaga a mangelwurzel”, he was seriously up the botanical and agricultural creek without a leg to stand on. Later, Somerset Maugham made fun of such ignorance in Of Human Bondage:

“I can see you in the country,” she answered with good-humoured scorn. “Why, the first rainy day we had in the winter you’d be crying for London.” She turned to Philip. “Athelny’s always like this when we come down here. Country, I like that! Why, he don’t know a swede from a mangel-wurzel.”

Mangel-wurzel is mainly a British term, which is often shortened to mangel, or sometimes to mangold. To many townies, it evokes a stereotyped traditional yokel rurality in which every peasant wears a smock, wields a pitchfork, and talks in a Mummerset accent. Think of the scarecrow Worzel Gummidge, whose first name comes from the vegetable, though the author states that his head was actually made from a turnip. Confusion abounds.

Mangel-wurzel is originally German. The first part is the old word Mangold, meaning beet or chard (the latter being the green leaves from a variety of beet). The second part is Wurzel, a root. Germans became confused about the first part several centuries ago and thought it was instead Mangel, a shortage or lack. From this has grown up the popular belief that mangel-wurzel refers to a famine food, a root you eat only when you’re starving. This is a gross calumny, since when young it’s as tasty and sweet as other sorts of beet, though it’s mainly used as animal fodder.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Jan. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 13 January 2007.