Final Word

Veteran onion beats the upstart potato

Onion.jpg

Does Springbok coach Allister Coetzee really know his onions or is he a small potato turning our national team into small fry in the international arena?

Most of us know the expression “he knows his onions” to describe someone who is a real expert in his field – on top of his game, so to speak.

Rereading some of the works of probably South Africa’s most celebrated and colourful author of short stories, Herman Charles Bosman, I came across a variant of the expression, also from the vegetable world.

In his book Cold Stone Jug, dealing with his four years in prison after killing his stepbrother, Bosman tells us about a food strike by the inmates. In the story, he uses the following sentence: “That was where men with the gift of leadership, like Blue-coat Verdamp and Alec the Ponce, knew their potatoes.”

From the context, I immediately knew what he was trying to convey – except that I would have expected onions on the plate and not potatoes – and then the digging around started.

It turns out that Bosman was probably borrowing his expression from a 1920s trend among American writers (of which Bosman was an avid reader) to use such phrases – all with the sense of knowing one’s stuff, or being highly knowledgeable in a particular field.

Examples included were to know one’s ‘oats’, to know one’s ‘oil’, to know one’s ‘apples’ and to know one’s ‘eggs’. The ‘onion’ was the first to be recorded in the May 1922 edition of Harper’s Magazine as “Mr. Roberts knows his onions, all right.”

The potato was a relative latecomer, making its appearance in a 1928 cartoon by TA Dorgan, and then initially as ‘sweet potato’.

Endurance and productivity

From the food basket of this collection of phrases, the onion has proved its quality of endurance and still remains the most common one.

The potato, however, has proven to be the more productive one. A long list of phrases feature this vegetable, which has also developed into the staple food in many parts of the world since Spanish explorers brought it with them from Peru in the 16th century.   

The list of potato phrases and proverbs from all over the world include:

  • The Greek phrase: A lucky person is someone who plants pebbles and harvests potatoes;
  • The Spanish proverb: A man who prides himself on his ancestry is like the potato plant, the best part of which is underground;
  • The Irish proverb: It is easy to halve the potato where there is love;
  • The Yiddish proverb: Health? Very nice! But where will we get potatoes?;
  • Kikuyu proverb: It is always the potato of another family’s boy that extinguishes the fire; and
  • Jamaican proverb: Rat belly full, potato have skin.

The everyday English variety include: To drop someone or something ‘like a hot potato’; ‘small potatoes’ (of insignificance) and its variant ‘small fry’ ; and ‘couch potato’.

The linguistic productivity of the potato also seems to be endless and new phrases/proverbs are being added all the time. Among the latest is the word for people like myself who spend most of their day behind a PC:  ‘mouse potatoes’.

The publication USA Today reported how fear of the world outside the front door is creating a world where today’s children are under ‘house arrest’, playing electronic games all day, turning them into ‘cot potatoes’.

Final word

Both the potato and the onion can trace their recorded history back some millennia.

In the case of the potato to the Inca empire and its residents, where for at least 7 000 years it has been a staple food.

In the case of the onion, to the ancient Egyptians, who not only regarded it as food but also as symbol of eternal life. Onions were even used in Egyptian burials, as evidenced by onion traces found in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV.

Maybe that is why the onion lives on proverbially in the positive sense of ‘knowing your onions’ and the potato in overwhelming negative senses like ‘couch potato’ and ‘small potato or small fry’.

Which raises the question: Are our rugby coaches, and perhaps some of our political leaders, the eyes of Ramesses IV or small potatoes?

by Piet Coetzer

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