Phrases on Fridays: The Vegetable Pejorative

In the world of food idioms, fruit-based phrases are the golden sons, while vegetables get to do all the dirty work of describing things that are less than savory, somewhat lacking in intelligence or downright boorish. When life’s good, it’s a bowl of cherries, or it’s peachy. When you get a great job, it’s a plum assignment. And while you can be a bad apple, I’ll bet your mom thinks you’re still the apple of her eye.

In English, these are a synonym for "nothing."
In English, these are a synonym for “nothing.”

In contrast, ever notice how beans (which are technically legumes, not strictly vegetables, but stay with me) are deployed to describe things that are almost worthless? You probably work with a bunch of bean counters, who are much-maligned and very meticulous accountants whose work as soon as virtually meaningless. About the earliest known pejorative use of bean counter, says:

The US newspaper The Fort Wayne News And Sentinel, February 1919, in an article titled “The Bean Counter”:

The son of Josephus has been promoted in the quartermaster’s department. “I suppose,” remarked the Gentleman at the Adjacent Desk “I suppose that somebody has to count the beans for Colonel Roosevelt’s fighting sons.”

Implied in this passage is the sentiment that Colonel Roosevelt’s fighting sons will get exactly the amount of beans they deserve, no more and no less.

But if that explanation didn’t mean much to you, it was probably dismissed as not worth a hill of beans. In return, I would criticize your lack of intellectual discernment, as you obviously don’t know beans. My argument about vegetables is worth reading until the end, and if you don’t think so, you’re talking nonsense, being full of beans. (Although, being full of beans can also mean excessively lively, as though filled with gas, e.g., I’ve never seen someone that full of beans at this hour. Casually, it can also mean that you’ve smoked enough weed to forget your own name, e.g., “Dude, I’m so full of beans.” This is, admittedly, a claim from Urban Dictionary, where almost every adjective can be employed to describe being stoned to varying degrees.)

Other vegetables also get a to do the dirty work of describing life’s unpleasant things. For example, the guy next to you chewing splinters off his pencil and drooling on his test when you took the SATs was probably a peabrain, as was the mourning dove who made a nest of three sticks on top of your storm gutters then acted all surprised when rain washed it away. That dove, having no nest, is now in a pickle, as are you, because your gutter is overflowing and it’s raining hard. But you don’t want to do anything about the gutter because you’re a dedicated couch potato. Instead you think wistfully of those salad days of your youth, when Dad would get up on the ladder to clear the gutters, but now it’s you that’s got to do it. And you run the risk of slipping off the ladder in the pouring rain, bashing your head on the driveway and forever rendering yourself a vegetable. But you didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, so there’s no way you’re going out in the rain for that dumb bird, the pea-brain.

I guess this is a turnip truck.
I guess this is a turnip truck.

See? Vegetables, always doing the dirty work.