Towards the end of Nabokov’s Истребление тиранов (“Tyrants destroyed,” mentioned previously here) the protagonist, who has been agonizing over how to rid his country—and, more importantly, himself—of the dictator he had known as a young man, hears a procession in the street celebrating the tyrant’s fiftieth birthday. It has been established that the evil ruler is extremely fond of turnips (at one point, praising a 70-pound turnip an old woman has grown in her garden, he says “Вот это поэзия, вот бы у кого господам поэтам учиться” [“Now, that’s poetry, the poets should learn from it”] and “angrily” orders a bronze cast to be made from it), and one of the stanzas of the poem (by “our best poet”) resounding from all the radios of the city goes like this:

Вообразите, ни реп нет,
Ни баклажанов, ни брюкв…
Так и песня, что днесь у нас крепнет,
Задыхалась в луковках букв.
Imagine, [without our ruler] there are neither turnips,
nor eggplants, nor rutabagas…
Thus even the song which now burgeons among us
was stifled in bulbs of letters.

The ruler’s jubilee song self-presented as a root vegetable: how that must have warmed his cold, cold heart! At any rate, the word брюква [bryúkva] ‘rutabaga’ has always struck me as humorous, though that may partly be carryover from rutabaga itself. I’m not the only one who sees the American term (and consequently the vegetable itself) as hilarious, because the OED—which informs us the word is from “Swed. dial. (W. Götland) rotabagge“—includes among the citations these:
1951 O. NASH Family Reunion 107 We gobbled like pigs On rutabagas and salted figs.
1975 New Yorker 10 Nov. 176/2 Pertly written by pertly pretty housewives who have discovered organic gardening and how to rub two rutabagas together to feed four happy, whimsical tots—such books glut the shelves.
And—oho!—another citation suggests a possible source for Nabokov’s mock-poem:
1820 SHELLEY Œd. Tyr. I. 47 Hog-wash or grains, or ruta-baga, none Has yet been ours since your reign begun.
The Shelley poem (online here) presents a chorus of pigs complaining of the downward turn their lives have taken since Swellfoot came to rule over them; Nabokov’s tyrant is clearly a descendant of this same Swellfoot, who has provided his subjects with rutabagas even if he has extracted their freedoms.
But I digress. I went to Dahl to see if there were any quaint Russian sayings employing the word брюква, and discovered it had almost two dozen dialectal synonyms: брюкла, буква, бухма, бушма, бушня, калива, калига, голань, галанка, ланка, ландушка, немка, бакланка, баклага, грухва, грыжа, грыза, желтуха, землянуха, дикуша, рыганка, синюха. (Interesting that the second of these is буква, which in standard Russian means ‘letter (of the alphabet)’ as used in the quatrain above.) It must have been much more of a staple in nineteenth-century Russia than it has been since in English-speaking lands (the entire entry in Waverley Root’s wonderful compendium Food reads: “rutabaga, or swede turnip, a root more admired a century or two ago than it is now”); no wonder that the sole saying given by Dahl is Надоел ты мне, что брюква: ‘I’m as sick of you as of rutabaga.’


  1. I vaguely wondered what rutabaga was when I came across it first in English; “yellow-fleshed turnip” clears it up, but it endorses my instinct at the time that the most important thing about it–that it’s to be avoided, if alternatives are to be had–was clear from the context.
    That learned, I can confirm that yellow-fleshed turnip tastes pretty good with loads of pepper, and nowhere else.
    Careful on drawing a causal link with the number of words for this vegetable and the staple diet of the people; Geoff Pullum won’t have any problem with you, but his legions of eskimo-fallacy-hunters may.

  2. November was National Rutabaga month.

  3. Enormous Turnip says

    “And so if you are going to the Rootabaga Country you will know when you get there, because the railroad tracks change from straight to zigzag, the pigs have bibs on and it is the fathers and mothers who fix it.” And don’t forget your “long slick yellow leather slab ticket with a blue spanch across it.” — Carl Sandburg

  4. Lots of info on rutabagas, made-up and otherwise, is to be found at the Advanced Rutabaga Studies Institute home page. (Me, I am a fan of the rutabaga, primarily mashed and in stew.)

  5. A humorous test about bryukva, in Russian:

  6. I’d never heard of the term until this…

  7. Swedes are much better than I remember them. In addition to Orkney Clapshot (bashed neeps, i.e. mashed swedes and mashed potatoes with grilled cheese on top), a salad of half grated raw swede / carrot with sour cream is good.
    See for the German names the comments to my post on Burns Night:
    Why the Scots call them turnips but also neeps I do not know.

  8. Chinese pickled turnip is a real treat, though they probably don’t use rutabagas.
    I read an Erskine Caldwell novel once in which a hillbilly with a bag of rutabagas seduces a hungry young girl by promising her one of them, which she munches down raw once the deal is finalized. Caldwell was thought of as a realist, but he laid on the local color and hyperbole far too thick for him to be classified that way.

  9. Also turnip-cake (lo-bo gao). “Gao” doesn’t really mean “cake”; it’s sort of a thick, firm puddinglike thing that can be carved into squares.

  10. Continuing relentlessly on the turnip question, I think that turnips in general, including rutabagas, are disliked because they tend to be poverty food. As soon as you have any money you move up. The Chinese seem to feel that way about potatoes and sweet potatoes. Needham believes that the Chinese population doubled with the introduction of potatos, because it was a backup to rice. I believe that in Poland and Ireland something similiar happened. Famine used to be a common event.

  11. From Andreas Viestad’s cookbook “Kitchen of Light”:
    “According to the Norwegian anthropologist Runar Døving, rutabaga is what all Norwegians are thinking of but do not dare to talk about. This somewhat puzzling assertion is made on the basis of some astounding statistics and Døving’s fieldwork and personal experience.”

  12. Uffda!

  13. Margaret — isn’t “neep” just short for “turnip”? That’s what I thought anyways.
    John — yes, turnip cakes are one of the best things around.

  14. Jeremy: ah, that explains it – they regard the two words as identical.

  15. Michael Farris says

    I like both turnips (the white kind with the purple top) and rutabagas and was kind of surprised that both are rare in Poland (seasonal and you have to hunt for them). I asked a freind and he sort of indicated that he thinks they (especially rutabaga, brukiew) lost popularity sometime after WWII because of associations with extreme poverty / desperation. This same friend said his mother won’t eat rabbit now because it reminds her of her childhood when it was about the only meat available.
    I think you can do a lot worse than rabbit stewed with turnip and rutabaga (or the rutabaga mashed or fried like french fries) but I guess that emotions can overcome taste.
    I myself don’t eat as much rice as I might simply because I remember when it was my staple in lean times (nothing like real deprivation but not fun). I like rice just fine, but …

  16. I always thought брюква was a cattle crop, like alfalfa, only for pigs. Same as white (not sugarly) beets. Do people really eat it?
    If by turnip you mean редька (white and black), it is indeed considered a crude vegetable, heavy on digestive system and only used in salads, shredded. On the second thought, it’s probably radish, not turnip.

  17. Turnips were a big part of the the 18th century “British Agricultural Revolution” which involved a cycle of the following four crops year after year in a particular field: grain, legumes, turnips, clover. The turnips provided some of the benefits of a fallow field while also providing significant animal food, which meant for more manure, etc. etc. (Previous field rotation was only three-fold: grain, legumes, fallow.) So it’s easy to see why turnips, despite being suitable human food, have a connotation of poverty in English-speaking countries — they became known primarily as an animal food in the first system of “advanced” agriculture.
    As for being eaten in Scotland, Sweden, and similar climates, one is reminded of Johnson’s definition of oats as a grain which in England is fed chiefly to horses but in Scotland supports the populace. Like oats, turnips grow well in worse soil and colder climates than more prestigious food.

  18. The source of Nabokov’s inspiration is most likely Mayakovskii’s poetry, specifically the poem “Xorosho!”. I did a little search on-line and found this article on the subject:
    (there should be more written in more academic/closed publications).
    Tatyana – turnip, is, without a doubt, repa – while radish is red’ka (in Russian probably a borrowing from Germanic; rediska definitely is a borrowing, at least according to Vasmer).

  19. Aaaa! I see. Well, than, turnip is definitely not a popular food in Russia now (at least not as popular as potatoes), and haven’t been for good 40 years (can’t be sure though – I didn’t witnessed the difficult ’94-’95)
    I still can’t imagine the taste; never had a chance to try. Have only two immediate associations: folk tale “…внучка за Жучку…вытянули Репку!” and an idiom “проще пареной репы”, which actually doesn’t sound very appetizing.

  20. It’s funny that Russians offer you steamed turnips (‘prosh’e parenoy repy’) as the easy dish, while English-speakers (Americans?) advocate pie (‘easy as pie’). A lot of those vegetables are associated with WWII experiences – my grandmother would never eat turnips or pumpkins for that reason.

  21. Mashed rutabagas are apparently a Scandinavian-American ethnic food, like lutefisk but less deadly. These foods are eaten especially at Christmas, but I believe that the rutabagas are eaten all year round.
    In those same areas of Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan you also have a tradition of meat pies called “pasties” which are usually described as Cornish. These are mining areas and some of the early miners were Cornish. Rutabagas are often put into the pasties, though some object to this.

  22. I’ve only tried raw turnip, and it’s fine if you like radish either in its red’ka or rediska variety. Rutabaga, or bryukva, is something reserved for pigs, so I was told as a child — thus I second Tatyana’s opinion.
    I’ve just re-read the poem and bits of the story — the verse must be among Nabokov’s best. VVN’s “late namesake” (покойный мой тезка, писавший стихи и в полоску, и в клетку…) never wrote anything as funny.

  23. LoL. Here is a lot of brykva here in Russia 🙂 And Nabokov’s poem was not about brykva 🙂

  24. Брюква sounds funny to me, and I never saw or tasted it. On the other hand, you can still find репа, and I personally like it very much.

  25. For the record, this rutabaga page looks pretty definitive:

  26. THIS is why there’s an internet! Thanks so much for this beautiful offering. I can’t find and rutabega sayings in Yiddish so far, but will try to uproot a few.
    turnip= di brukve
    rutabega= di shvedishe brukve

  27. I once referred on a mailing list to “Linnaeus himself, that crafty old Swede (who was by no means a turnip)” — I was explaining what the mysterious “L.” after certain botanical Linnaean names meant.
    John E.: Indeed, after potatoes replaced millet as the Irish staple, the population expanded, or rather exploded, eightfold.
    I have also always enjoyed, and recycled several times (and why not again?) the wisecrack “I am not a mushroom” (that is, someone to be kept in the dark and fed on bullshit).

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