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shameless pleading

Had the radish

A mystery doused in enigma sauce.

Dear Word Detective: I have used the term “had the radish” for as long as I can remember. It is used to express the demise of something, like a TV or a lawn mower  It can also be used to express pending doom, such as during the period after driving off the road and before hitting the tree.  Recently I used the phrase and the person I said it to had never heard it.  So I went on the internet to find the origin, and after several hours the only thing I found was other people asking the same question or using it in a sentence. If you can’t help me I understand, but if you can I would really appreciate it. — David Dempsey, Brookfield, VT.

Yes, but will you still appreciate my help a few years after you asked the question? I was going through my old email today (hey, it beats mowing the lawn), and noticed yours because I had flagged it as important when I received it. As soon as I re-read it, I remembered spending quite a long time researching “had the radish” the first time around. Unfortunately, I had failed to find out much of anything and succeeded only in giving myself a blinding headache. I guess it’s true that the mind doesn’t really remember pain, because I immediately started looking again. And looked. Then I ate lunch. Then I looked again. Sunset, sunrise. Empires crumbled to sand, and still I soldiered on.

I remembered, as you mentioned, seeing many people online asking about “had the radish,” and there seem to be even more now. This is actually a good sign, because it means that the phrase is (or was) widespread. It’s when you go looking for a phrase online and you get just three hits, all based on bizarre typographical errors, that you start to wonder if the questioner just misheard something.

On the other hand, the few theories I found online about the origin of “had the radish” were pushing the envelope of possibility, to put it politely. Several folks suggested that the phrase referred to the point in “Gone With the Wind,” Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War opus, when Scarlett O’Hara is reduced to scrounging for food and ends up eating a either a radish or a turnip (opinions vary) while vowing, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” But while GWTW was an immensely popular book and movie, there are problems with it being the source of this phrase. For one thing, Scarlett was defiantly vowing to overcome adversity in that scene, not announcing “Rats, now my goose is really cooked,” so the senses don’t match. Secondly, “had the radish” appears to be really popular mostly in northern New England. If GWTW were the source, such a regional limitation would be extremely unlikely.

I hate beginning sentences with “unfortunately,” but at this point I’m forced to announce that I have not, so far, found a slam-dunk origin of (or airtight explanation for) the use of “had the radish” to mean “kaput,” “in big trouble” or “doomed.” But I have made a rather intriguing discovery that may go a long way to retiring Scarlett O’Hara as the inspiration of the phrase.

I was browsing through the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which sends researchers out into the hinterlands all over the US in search of obscure folk locutions, and I came across what appears to be a close relative of “had the radish.” According to DARE, in northern New England “to have the pork” means “to be in trouble” or (in coastal Maine) “to be caught red-handed,” i.e., in the act of committing, or holding irrefutable evidence of, a crime. Although this specifies “pork” rather than a radish, it certainly matches the structure and meaning of our quarry.

My guess, and we’re deep into guessing here, is that the original saying was “had the pork,” and it referred to someone caught with stolen goods. It may well have been the punchline of a joke involving pigs. At some point, “radish” was substituted, but the general sense of “in deep trouble” carried over. As I said, that’s just a guess, and I’m hoping that some helpful reader will be able to fill in the blanks for us.

10 comments to Had the radish

  • Holger

    In German, we have the phrase “sich die Radieschen von unten ansehen”, literally, “to look at the radishes from below”. The closest translation would be “to be pushing up the daisies”, and the rationale for the phrase seems obvious: If you’re dead and buried, you can (sort of) look at radishes and other plants from below (or push them up, or tickle their roots, or whatever).

    I’d say that when you’re six feet under, you’re definitely in big trouble, so the meaning seems to fit. Maybe the radish metaphor somehow took the leap from German to English, or perhaps someone up in New England just had the same idea.

    Just a thought.

  • Adam Adamson

    Just a speculation, but I had a mental image of a plate of food (including salad) with a nice big radish on it (not little slices). Having been served plates like this, I have the distinct impression that radish eating is often the object of procrastination. I know, some people actually like radishes, but I think most probably endure them politely. So when one actually has eaten the radish, then one is thoroughly finished with the meal. Thus, “I’m afraid Aunt Matilda had the radish when she heard Uncle Jeff bought the farm,” came to mean she was “finished.”

  • Anna

    I just used the phrase this morning: I moved a chair in our living room and noticed the fabric is heavily faded and threadbare, and said, “I think that chair’s finally had the radish.” And then thought, “I wonder where that phrase came from?” I’ve used it all my life, but you are right: searching brought up little–though I would offer one clarification. While it could have a sense of “I’m in trouble/there’s impending doom,” it’s more in a resigned, final, or accepting way; less so in the pork reference/action still happening/caught red-handed sense. But always in the sense of “it’s done/finished/kaput.”

    Interestingly, I live and grew up in Vermont, and the majority of questions or first-hand references that I found on the web were cited from here (including the one above).

    For my money, I like Holger’s explanation above–it makes sense.

    Thanks for exploring this!

  • Ziggy2Times

    My Dad, born and raised in Northern Vermont, told me the origin related to poisoning radishes and positioning them around your garden that is being raided by wild rabbits. When the offending rabbit has had the radish, he is done for. For all I know he was pulling my leg, but a colorful explanation none the less.

  • Don Worth

    Thank God I found someone that knows what this means. Beginning to think I made it up as a kid.

  • Kathy S.

    I also used the phrase where something has ‘been through the radish’ – meaning it was worn. I guess my mother used to say this- I’m not sure – it just came out one time to explain something worn out. My friend had never heard of it so I googled it. Funny thing- I also grew up in Vermont.

  • Chris

    Perhaps it has to do with the widespread belief that wild radish (shepherdspurse) is toxic to sheep. The saying seems to be localized in Vermont, where I am a lifelong resident, and where keeping sheep was a widespread way of life 150 years ago. Seems likely that farmers may have described sick or dying sheep as having “had the radish” If it was known to or even thought to make livestock sick.

  • ProfMark

    I recently used this expression around several Virginians for whom the expression “had the radish” was new. Though I have no hard evidence, I am from recent German immigrant stock with no small exposure to the culture of Great Lakes and NE Jewish communities and the expression was widely used. So I am intrigued by Holger’s speculation, though my guess–I was pressed by my southern friends to explain the origin and meaning of the phrase–was to wonder if it wasn’t a corruption of the Yiddish equivalent of to “have the kaddish,” or the son’s prayer for the dead father. The sarcasm of immigrants and the anti-semitism of the host language could easily explain why a humorous mishearing might stick and propagate. Unfortunately, I do not have the Yiddish to go farther.

  • Jason A. Wark

    August 16, 2013
    I am an 81 year old native Vermonter.
    I have no more knowledge of the idea of the origin of “had the radish” than any of the other people who went through Google looking for the answer, several of which make sense in the context given.
    All I can say is that since I was a child I have used the expression “I’ve had the radish”
    to convey the meaning that I was all worn out after putting in a goodly number of hours at hard physical labor and have used this expression to convey the same thought about any number of things that had reached a similar state of affairs- all worn out.
    I must have picked it up from my parents and/or from people with whom I worked while growing up here in Vermont. Like most rural kids in those years as throughout most of the good o’l USA we were no strangers to hard labor.
    Of all the answers given on Google I liked the one about the old country German expression of looking up at the radishes after one’s burial which could be a logical choice for the origin of our current modified uses of “had the radish”. After all, let us not forget we all started out from our Old World ancestors and God knows many of them ended up looking up at the radishes, German or not.
    Some of the answers imply the origin may be a Vermont concoction. Then again maybe not.
    There was a German prisoner of war camp in Stark, NH where the German prisoners were brought in to be wood cutters for the paper mills in that area toward the end of WWII and a year or so thereafter. Lord knows that was hard labor and maybe they passed that expression on to the local population re-enforcing it, but then again there were many German settlers of this country long before WWII and “having the radish” may have been here from the very beginning of the USA with subsequent modification in it’s application.
    It seems to me the origin of “had the radish” is buried in the sands of time and is itself now, as Holder said above, “sich die Radieschen von unten ansehen”, literally, “to look at the radishes from below”.

  • I am from Rutland, Vermont, and have used the phrase, “I have had the radish,” all my life. I am now in my 60′s. I use it in the context that I am tired, finished with this. I can’t cope with this anymore.

    I lived in Georgia for a period of time, and people there have not heard of the phrase.

    However, regarding the origin of the word, I do not know.

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