The Devil’s Details: What’s in a Spud?


A good friend of mine became a father for the second time recently, and when he shared the name, I pointed out that the initials spelled SPED. As interesting a word as this is, it couldn’t fail to remind me of the phonetically similar spud.

As a languages student and inventor of a (poorly-constructed) fantasy language, etymologies have recently become fascinating to me. For example, the word butt comes, through Middle English and Old French, from the Old High German word bōzan, which means to beat (bōzan > boter > buter > beten > butt > beat). It’s use as an abbreviation of ‘buttocks’ is of course something else entirely.

So where on earth did the word spud come from? Well, the interesting thing here is what exactly spud meant to me in the first place; growing up, it was always synonymous with potato. If you were a surgeon, however, a spud would be a small spade-shaped utensil for digging material from a body. If you were a gardener…

It turns out, interestingly, that a spud used to be (still is, in fact) the name of the spade-like tool used to dig roots – such as potatoes – from the earth. The word spud itself appears to come from the Middle English word spudde, which apparently was a kind of dagger or short knife. The origin seems lost from there, but I could imagine that, in the dawn of human communication, *SPUD* was the sound a dagger made when you jabbed it into someone’s back.

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