A “turnip-eater” was considered a stupid person; a “turnip-head” a peasant or a country bumpkin. And “turnip” itself became slang for a simpleton or a fool.
Listener David from Canada recently wrote in with a question. He wanted to know about the meaning and origin of the phrase “to fall off the turnip truck.”
David, we’ll start with the basics. In case you’re not a fan of root vegetables, turnips are the one that look like overgrown radishes. They’re cream-colored on the outside and pure white on the inside. The part we most commonly eat grows underground, and it has broad green leaves that grow aboveground. They have a bitter taste when raw and a pretty bland taste when cooked.
People thought of turnips as food that only poor people eat.
Turnips have long been eaten by humans. But for probably just as long, they’ve been considered a food of the poor. The ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote of beggars who were so impoverished that they ate not turnips—but the scrawny leaves of turnips. In 16th-century England, turnips were grown in rotation with barley, clover, and wheat—and then fed to cows, pigs, and sheep. (1,2)
Perhaps because turnips were considered suitable eating for barnyard animals, they came to be associated with dullness and stupidity. A “turnip-eater” was considered a stupid person; a “turnip-head” a peasant or a country bumpkin. And “turnip” itself became slang for a simpleton or a fool. (3)
We see this use as early as 1656, in a book of poems that refers to a “poor turnip-eating Clown.” We also see it in Charles Dickens's “Pickwick Papers,” published in 1836. His character Sam Weller refers to himself as a “soft-headed, inkred’lous turnip.” (3)
So, if dullards eat turnips, they might also fall from turnip trucks, right? Thus, we see the use that David mentions. You’ll most likely hear it said in the negative, as in, “I don’t believe your lies. Do you think I fell off a turnip truck?”
This expression is more common in the southern United States than in the north. There’s a chain of grocery stores in Nashville, Tennessee, called the Turnip Truck. “Southern Living” magazine calls the phrase a “quirky Southern saying.” There’s even a literary journal called "The Turnip Truck(s)," founded by a group of writers who met at the University of Idaho.
Why did they pick that name? Editor Tina Mitchell explains that it’s a phrase her father, raised on a farm in rural South Dakota, uses often. “He frequently reminds me that ‘he didn’t fall off the turnip truck,’” she says. “The first time he said this, I was probably 10 or 11. I asked him what he meant, to which he replied, ‘It basically means I wasn’t born yesterday.’” (4)
To 'fall off the turnip truck' means to be naïve or gullible, like a country bumpkin.
Two quick notes. This phrase is not related to the expression “to fall off the wagon,” which means to resume drinking alcohol after having stopped. Nor is it related to the phrase “to fall off a truck,” or the UK version “to fall off the back of a lorry.” Both of these phrases refer to an item that was stolen or otherwise obtained by questionable methods. (5)
That’s your tidbit for today. To “fall off the turnip truck” means to be naïve or gullible, like a country bumpkin.
Bonus Tidbit 1: The phrase “to give a person turnips” means to jilt someone, or to get rid of him or her once and for all. (6)
Bonus Tidbit 2: If you really want to go crazy learning about turnips, check out the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED lists more than 90 individual words and phrases containing the word “turnip,” including "turnip-heart," "turnip-ghost," "turnip-flea," and "turnipologist." (7)
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(1) Flandrin , Jean-Louis, Massimo Montanari (Eds), Albert Sonnenfeld (translator). Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, p. 87. Columbia University Press, 1999.
(2) Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne, Anthea Bell (translator). A History of Food, p. 137. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
(3) Green, Jonathan. Turnip. Green’s Dictionary of Slang, online edition, subscription required, accessed August 30, 2018
(4) Personal correspondence, Samantha Enslen and Tina Mitchell, August 30, 2018.
(5) Dolgopolov, Yuri. Fall off a truck/fall off the turnip truck. A Dictionary of Confusable Phrases: More Than 10,000 Idioms and Collocations. McFarland & Company, 2010.
(6) Barrère, Albert. Turnips. A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant: Volume 1. The Ballantyne Press, 1890.
(7) Oxford English Dictionary. Turnip. Online edition, available by subscription, accessed August 30, 2018.