kohlrabi

This is a strange-looking word for a strange-looking plant.

Many people get boxes of produce delivered regularly. Many others go wandering through farmers’ markets or surfing the interesting-vegetables corner in their local grocery store. And many times they see this plant, this word, or both, and say “What the heck is that?”

The plant they behold is a sort of creepy sphere with up-dripping appendages, like an organic earth sputnik or an amputee vegan squid or a modernist house design fad from 1952, or some ineffable eldritch animate orb bemusing space travellers on the cover of a mid-century sci-fi novel.

The word they behold is more ungainly than rutabaga. It is an oversized Scrabble-grab of letters that defeat permutation into a single word fitting the usual Anglo-Saxon practices. It could almost name a famous diamond or a southern African desert or an Asian range of mountains.

Or a cabbage-turnip.

Kohl, German, ‘cabbage’. Rabi, related to German Rübe and both ultimately from Latin rapa, ‘turnip’. The plant’s Italian name is cavolo rapa, also ‘cabbage turnip’. The Germans just took that and did that thing that German does with words. Why have a farfalla flutter above your cavolo rapa when you can have a Schmetterling besetting your Kohlrabi?

But even if you don’t find the word appealing, and don’t find the look of the plant appealing, if you buy it, you will be a-peeling, because it’s best to take the skin off. What’s inside is crispy and juicy and similar in taste to the heart of a broccoli stem. Fair enough: they’re related. Kohlrabi was selectively bred from the same wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) progenitor of cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and other crucifers. Technically they’re all varieties of the same plant in the same way as victuals and vittles are varieties of the same word, or thresh and thrash, or vermin and varmint. Or Kohlrabi and cavoli rapa. It’s not a turnip, it’s a cabbage, but it’s a turnip-looking cabbage.

Well, fine, whatever. Here’s a fact for you: some of the ugliest food is some of the best. Same with words.

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2 responses to “kohlrabi

  1. AElfwine Mischler

    What a coincidence that you posted on the kohlrabi while the annual conference of the American Society for Indexing is going on ( http://www.asindexing.org). The kohlrabi is the official vegetable of ASI because, like kohlrabi, nobody knows what indexers are or what to do with them.

    AElfwine Mischler Editor, ASI newsletter See Also

  2. A very fitting word for this weekend (kohlrabi was my Dad’s favourite). Thank you for the first grin of the day. 🙂

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