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.