pickles, pickle, rutabaga and ??

Grant Barrett asked me how long I think it takes for a person to lose the intuition for what's in your own dialect and what you've acquired in a second dialect. I can't say when it's happened to me, but it's definitely happened, which is why all of my posts have references to Better Half and friends in America, etc.--those are the people who tell me when I say something US or UK to the wrong audience. Not only have I got(ten) used to saying British things (like have got instead of have gotten), I have also acquired an intuition for when I might need a British word that I don't know yet. For instance, I have, like the good English homeowner that I have recently become, started to learn about gardening, and even though I don't yet know all the British words for the tools, I am often inclined to ask "What do you call this?" before saying "I bought pruning shears". (The BrE term is secateurs.)

But I've also found that my 20-something-year-old students can be fairly insensitive to dialectal differences coming from me. I recently asked them to read a draft chapter of a textbook I'm writing, and to let me know if they came across any examples that didn't work for British English. Many of them pointed out American spellings--even though I'd explicitly told them not to. (Instruction-following is a skill that's unevenly acquired among my students!) Only one out of about thirty students noticed a glaring Americanism that was repeated several times in the chapter: the use of pickle as a count noun.

In the US a pickle is a cucumber that's been pickled, but in the UK such things are called dill cucumbers or, if they're not dill, pickled cucumbers. If you are American and like dill pickles, don't bother buying English ones, even if the bottle says kosher dills. They are all made with sugar and taste more like what I would call sweet pickles than like a good deli pickle. Some specialty shops sell decent, non-sweet ones imported from Poland. (See this more recent post for more on the meaning of cucumber.)

In the UK, pickle, also known as sweet pickle, is a condiment made of chopped vegetables and fruits pickled in vinegar and sugar or other sweet ingredient. Click here for a recipe for pumpkin pickle.

The most popular pickle in the UK is Branston pickle. If you're offered a cheese and pickle sandwich, it's probably got Branston pickle in it. The thing that I find most fascinating about Branston pickle is its list of ingredients:

Rutabaga from
Vegetables in various proportions (Carrots, Rutabaga, Onions, Cauliflower, Marrows, Gherkins), Sugar, Malt Vinegar - from Barley, Spirit Vinegar, Salt, Chopped Dates (with Rice Flour), Apples (with Preservative: Sulphur Dioxide), Modified Maize Starch, Tomato Paste, Colour: Sulphite Ammonia Caramel, Spices, Concentrated Lemon Juice, Onion Powder, Garlic Extract.

You can see a number of BrE terms here: Spirit Vinegar (US: White Vinegar), Marrow (a type of squash that's not common in the US), Maize (US: Corn).

You can also see a number of BrE spellings: Sulphur/Sulphite as opposed to US Sulfur/Sulfite, and Colour, of course.

But which of these things is not like the other? It's rutabaga! One of the great mysteries of life (which was later solved!) is why an British product made in a British factory for British consumers has an altogether American word like rutabaga on its label.

Every year I run a pub quiz for our incoming Linguistics/English Language students and (despite the fact that the word is on a jar in most English kitchens) a question that always stumps them is "What is the British word for the vegetable that Americans call rutabaga?"

Do you know?

Click the link below for 'comments' to get the answer and some etymological info about rutabaga.

Click here for the big list of vegetables.


  1. British English for rutabaga is swede.

    Rutabagas/swedes aren't eaten half as much in the US as in the UK, where they are often part of Sunday lunch.

    There's a link between the BrE name and the AmE name for this turnip: the AmE word comes from an old Swedish dialect word for this vegetable--so presumably this was a vegetable that came to English/American plates from Sweden. These days, the word rutabaga is unknown to most Swedes (but not swedes!). The Swedish word is kålrot--literally 'cabbage root'.

    1. in the Southeast US, rutabagas and turnips are quite common in classic or "country" cooking. at pretty much every church potluck there will be mashed rutabagas or turnips, sometimes including the greens and sometimes not. without, they look so much like mashed potatoes i spent my entire childhood wondering how some peoples potatoes tasted like that haha.. so anyway, you're saying a rutabaga is a type of turnip? i thought they were totally different things! i guess well into adulthood i still have more to learn about root veggies. i watch a lot of British television and had been wondering what swedes were for ages.

  2. It seems in America there is an element unknown to the rest of the world. Its name is said "a loo min umm" In much of the rest of the English speaking world this deficit is made up for by a much tastier metal called "Al, You mini yum". How did the first person singular come to be excised from "aluminium"?

    Anyway, if I can call you Betty, you can call me Al.

  3. I'm afraid you've got that backward. It was called aluminum before anyone called it aluminium. To quote the the International Aluminium Institute:

    "In 1808 Sir Humphrey Davy proposed the name ALUMIUM for the metal. This rather unwieldy name was soon replaced by ALUMINUM and later the word ALUMINIUM was adopted by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists in order to conform with the "ium" ending of most elements. By the mid-1800s both spellings were in use, indeed Charles Dickens commented at the time that he felt both names were too difficult for the masses to pronounce!"

  4. Nothing like commenting half a year late, I know, but I just came across this wikipedia article on rutabagas, and now I'm more confused than ever (not really - but goodness!) and I remembered this post, so... here you go!


  5. The interesting problem with using the term swede is that it's just called "turnip" in Scotland (or, I suppose, neeps, but I've only heard that term used when they're mashed. Certainly in supermarkets they're "turnips")
    Rutabaga might just be being used as a neutral term to avoid any north/south confusion

  6. I think Anonymous is speaking a very different and yodful kind of BrE to my own if they honestly pronounce it as al-yoo-min-yum (as opposed to al-uh-MIN-yum). I can't imagine how you emphasise it, either: al-YOO-min-yum is pretty unwieldy, al-yoo-MIN-yum more so, and al-yoo-MIN-ee-um you could get lost in...

    1. It's a-LOO-mi-num in the US.

      The 'yoo' bit is from the UK:

  7. The way I understand it, The Br.E/Sc.E was originally "Swedish Turnip". Br.E shortened it to "Swede", and Sc.E (Having no other form of turnip) shortened it to "turnip", which then lost it's "tur" and extended it's I to become "Neep", in much the same way "Potatoes" became "Tatties"

    As for the pronunciation of "Aluminium", I've heard it Al-yoo-min-ee-um, Al-yoo-min-yum, Al-yuh-min-yum and Al-uh-min-yum. I think dialect, accent and stress all play an important part - For instance if it is important to stress that it's an aluminium girder, rather than a steel one, the speaker may say "Al-you-min-ee-yum", to stress the point and give it more import.

    I think Anonymous there was asking about where the "you" sound disappeared to in the Am.E version, as they all seem to pronounce it "Al-oo" rather than "Al-you".

    And, for your Dill pickles, you might want to try looking for "Gherkins".

  8. Thanks, R"A"J. As far as I've found, all British gherkins have sugar. This is an anathema to American dill pickle connoisseurs.

    On the 'yoo' sound in alumin(i)um and other words, I've written this, if you're interested.

  9. You say tomato and I say tomato.

  10. Replies
    1. I await the answer to this with RELISH!

  11. Nothing like commenting 6 years late on a post.

    As the child of a Brit raised in America there are some glaringly obvious differences in language that seem only obvious to me. For example, in kindergarten, I was terrified when a friend told me that she wanted to pull someone's pants down, as I was unaware that she meant trousers, not underpants.

    Also, many foods do have different names, whenever I went to the store with my Dad's shopping list the workers thought I was insane as it included things like "courgette" (zucchini), double cream (which isn't manufactured here), and aubergine (eggplant). I once came home with flour baked scones because he had written "biscuts", meaning cookies.

    1. [Seven years on from yours] Is double cream anything like the heavy cream found in the US?

    2. Same thing 3 years on from yours.

    3. There is a separate post on cream. https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2006/07/fools-and-cream.html

  12. Dear Kathy,

    Yep. there are entries for all of those elsewhere on the blog! :)

  13. Lynne

    the use of pickle as a count noun

    It's possible in British English, but in the sense of 'messy situation':

    Here's a pretty pickle!
    I was really in a pickle

    It goes without saying that a pickle can mean 'a type of pickle'. And we do consume pickles that are not sweet ─ if only in Indian restaurants, where pickles lack the sweetness of chutneys. (Mango pickle can be a real surprise if you're expecting mango chutney.)

    There's also a relatively popular pickle called piccalilli which isn't sweet. As a child I was traumatised when I first saw its mustard yellow colour and its obvious cauliflower content, so I've never tasted it.

  14. In New England (I love this stuff) they make something called Howard's Green Tomato Piccalilli (also a Red Pepper variety). Both are extremely sweet and good on just about anything. I go through periods of eating dill pickles, but I keep reverting to sweet chutneys and picalilly's (however spelled). When driving, we have to remember to stop and get a bunch before we cross the Vermont-New York line, headed west, because these are unknown west of here. (It's a long winter in Iowa if I forget to stop and get it. Meat and cheese sandwiches just aren't the same without it).

  15. I'm from Middle Georgia, and I love rutabagas. My mother cooked them but not as often as, say, turnips. Pickles are sweet or dill. Some folks call sweet ones "bread and butter pickles."

    1. My brother-in-law, from East Point, Ga., (oddly, just southwest of Atlanta) just picked up a jar of pickled sliced Vidalia onions. Vidalia onions are known as "sweet" onions, since they're so mild. (They're grown in soil that is free of sulfur. There's somewhere on the west coast with similar soil.)

      At any rate, these are also pickled with a good deal of sugar in them, though they are not a paste or jam consistency. They sort of float around in the pickling solution. (I just tried them, and they're pretty good.)

  16. Could someone please tell me if what we British call a cucumber (i.e. long and thin that is sliced and put in salads) is the same and the same name in the US? Many thanks!

    1. Indeed, it is.

    2. English cucumbers are longer and thinner with thinner skin. I grew up in New Mexico, USA, ancestry Scottish, English, Welsh, with a grandmother who was raised South of the Border in Old Mexico. She and my mother both made dill pickles, not sweet, and piccalilli and bread and butter pickles both sweet

  17. Marrows not well known in the USA? Then they will not know the Marrow Song! https://www.lyricsplayground.com/alpha/songs/m/marrowsongthe.html


  18. 'In the UK such things are called dill cucumbers or, if they're not dill, pickled cucumbers'. I'm British and I can confirm this incorrect. In the UK we call them gherkins, I have never heard anyone refer to them as dill cucumbers or pickled cucumbers, the closest is perhaps dill pickles but I think most Brits wouldn't understand this. We refer to items in vinegar as pickles i.e. gherkins, onions, red cabbage, beetroot, eggs, etc. Then we have pickle, which as you mentioned is things like Branston pickle but also piccalilli.

  19. They are called Gherkins or Pickled Gherkins in the UK, also the really small cocktail ones are Cornichons. The BIG ones you get at the chippy are called 'Wallies'... Eg. Cod, Chips and a Wally please.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)