50 Idioms About Fruits and Vegetables

By Mark Nichol

Food, one of the necessities of life, figures often in traditional expressions. Fruits and vegetables, specifically, account for some of the most familiar idioms, including the following.

Fruit

1. To compare “apples and oranges” is to uselessly compare unlike things.
2. The “apple of (one’s) eye” is a favorite or well-like person.
3. To say that “the apple never falls far from the tree” is to suggest that a person’s personality traits are close to those of the person’s parents.
4. “As American as apple pie” means that something is quintessentially representative of American culture or values.
5. “(As) sure as God made little green apples” suggests certainty.
6–12. To be a “bad apple” or a “rotten apple” is to be a bad person. Meanwhile, to say that “one bad (or rotten) apple spoils the whole bunch (or barrel)” implies that one flawed element or person can undermine an effort or a group, and to be “rotten to the core” is to be thoroughly bad or worthless.
13–14. “How do you like them apples?” (or “How about them apples?”) is a neutral or taunting comment, depending on the context, that refers to an undesirable state or situation.
15–16. To “polish (one’s) apple” is to flatter someone; a flatterer is an “apple polisher.”
17. To “upset the apple cart” is to ruin plans.
18. A “banana republic” is a weak or corrupt country.
19–20. A “second banana” is a subordinate, and the “top banana” is the leader.
21–22. To “go bananas” is to become excited or crazed, and “to drive (someone) bananas” is to annoy or irritate someone.
23. Something in “cherry condition” is excellently maintained or restored.
24. To “cherry-pick” is to select carefully.
25. “Life is a bowl of cherries” means that life is easy.
26. To “not give a fig” is to be unconcerned.
27. A “lemon” is a flawed or worthless item; the idiom often refers to a vehicle.
28. “Melon” is sometimes used as slang for head or, vulgarly, for large breasts.
29. To say that someone or something is a “peach” means that they are beautiful, excellent, or sweet.
30. When everything is “peaches and cream,” life is going well.
31. A “plum” assignment or job is a highly coveted one.
32. One is said to have “sour grapes” when one belittles something one covets but cannot obtain.

Vegetables

33–36. To be “full of beans” is to talk nonsense, and to “not know beans” is to be ignorant or uninformed. To be “not worth a hill of beans” is to be worthless, and to “spill the beans” is to tell a secret.
37–38. To “dangle a carrot” before someone is to encourage them with an incentive, and the carrot in “carrot and stick” is an incentive or reward. (The stick is the punishment.)
39. A “carrot top” is a red-haired person.
40. Someone “as cool as a cucumber” is very self-possessed under pressure.
41. To “pass an olive branch” is to make peaceful or reconciliatory overtures.
42. A “pea-brained” person is stupid.
43. Fog or something else very dense can be described as being “as thick as pea soup.”
44. To be “like two peas in a pod” is to be very close with or similar to someone.
45. To be “in a pickle” is to experience complication.
46. A “couch potato” is someone who spends an excessive amount of time seated watching television or playing video games.
47–48. A “hot potato” is a controversial or difficult issue, but to “drop (someone or something) like a hot potato” is to abandon the person or thing.
49. Something that is “small potatoes” is insignificant.
50. “Salad days” refers to the youthful period of one’s life.

Fruits and vegetables figure occasionally in figurative references to color, such as “beet red” (the color of embarrassment), or descriptions of specific hues, like “cherry red,” as well as other comparisons, including “pear shaped.” The words fruit and vegetable themselves appear occasionally in idiomatic phrases, including the following:

To “bear fruit” is to produce results.
“Forbidden fruit” is something attractive but not allowed.
The “fruits of one’s labors” are the results of the person’s efforts.
To “become a vegetable” is to be rendered physically disabled or to virtually cease physical activity.

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13 Responses to “50 Idioms About Fruits and Vegetables”

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Mark Nichol:

    “The ‘apple of (one’s) eye’ is a favorite or well-like person,”
    is very poor English.

    The correct writing or speech is the following:
    “The ‘apple of one’s eye’ is a favorite or well-liked person,”
    with the “d” on the end of “liked”.

    You remind me of the “Can Vegetables” aisle in the grocery store.
    Nope, it is the the “Canned Vegetables” aisle.
    Also, the “Canned Fruit” aisle, and also “canned soup”, not “can soup”.

    “French fried potatoes,” and not “French fry potatoes.”
    “Mashed potatoes,” and not “mash potatoes”.
    “Whipped cream,” and not “whip cream.”

    Also, do not write, “We are taking a brake. Please bare with us,”
    as I have seen before.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “To become a vegetable,” is to be rendered mentally disabled, and not necessarily physically.

    In callous hospital speech (My sister is an M.D.), “to go water the vegetables”, is to go give fluids via stomach tubes to seriously-injured patients who have become mental vegetables — often via severe strokes.

    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    I am confident that, “The ‘apple of (one’s) eye’ is a favorite or well-like person,” is a simple typo. The lack of an edit function here makes those extremely plentiful. Though I’m sure MN edits, come on, give the guy a “brake”. After all, we got half the Bible from scriptos!* 😉

    I agree that being a vegetable implies mental, not physical, disability.

    *Not intended as a literal literal comment.

  • Roberta B.

    Not enough space here…………but the origins of some of these idioms and cliches are very interesting………many from classic tales, scriptures, and fables with a morality message. Also…….

    #24. To “cherry-pick” is more than to select carefully. It is to select with selfish regard by not sharing or taking responsibility for any of the inferior or less-than-perfect products, results, duties, or rewards that inherently go along with the good parts.

    #26. To “not give a fig” is to be unconcerned, not because a “fig” is worthless, but to avoid using of a similar sounding obscenity.

    #49. “small potatoes” is more than insignificant; it is something not worth the effort (i.e., you’ll get the same results with less effort from peeling a large potato than from the extra effort spent peeling a bunch of small ones).

  • Curtis

    Mark,

    You failed to mention that “cherry” is also indicative of virginity . . .

  • Mary

    Dear Mark —

    Thanks for the wonderful daily dose of good sense — I always look forward to it.

    It has bothered me for years, though, the business of the carrot and the stick. It’s generally used these days in the sense of reward and punishment, as you say. But I remember, as a child, a different explanation for the idiom. It was an illustration of a horse pulling a ramshackle wagon. The driver, to get the animal to move along and to spare himself the effort of driving him with a whip, tied a carrot at the end of a long stick, which he then affixed to the harness. The carrot dangled in front of the horse’s nose, and the horse reached out for it and then kept moving along as it stayed continually out of reach. The driver could just take a nap. The stick isn’t punishment, but a means of keeping the horse moving ahead without the driver needing to expend any effort.

  • Sally

    Here in Australia, “full of beans” implies ‘lively, exciteable’ or even ‘agitated.’

  • Grace

    In the UK too, “full of beans” is full of energy, lively and active.

  • Anne

    I must disagree with #38: “Carrot and stick” is an incentive that offers an unattainable reward. The saying comes from the situation where a carrot is attached by string attached to a stick that is anchored to a mule’s halter, so that the carrot dangles in front of the animal. The mule steps toward the carrot in order to get close enough to eat it; of course, the carrot, attached as it is to the mule, is always dangling just out of reach. I’ve noticed in recent decades the stick part of this scenario somehow has morphed into a punishment; I believe this is a distortion of the original meaning of “carrot and stick”. Notice that you don’t see “carrot or stick,” which would make more sense if the carrot is the reward and the stick is the punishment.

  • Jon

    @Anne – the OED disagrees with you, I believe.

    “carrot, sb. Add: 1. a. fig. [With allusion to the proverbial method of tempting a donkey to move by dangling a carrot before it.] An enticement, a promised or expected reward; freq. contrasted with “stick” (=punishment) as the alternative.”

    See http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/carrot.html and others…

  • venqax

    No, the OED is disagreeing with Anne. She is saying that the carrot and stick were NOT contrasted, but rather a set making one unattainable goal. That as opposed to a “choice” or difference between reward and punishement, as the phrase is usuallly used now. I don’t know the origin of the term, but it well may be another example like “begs the question” in which the original, better in terms of uniqueness descriptiveness, meaning has been superseded by a new, more mundane one. Perhaps a mirage of an oasis would be a classic example of a carrot and stick enticement to keep crawling through the desert.

  • Stephen Thorn

    I would add:

    “Full of prunes,” which meant that the indicated person either didn’t know what they were talking about or were intentionally speaking falsely, i.e. “When Jake told Linda she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met she knew he was full of prunes.” A variant from the Depression-era was “banana oil,” as in “He’s full of banana oil.”

    Also, “as alike as two peas in a pod,” which indicated two things were identical in appearance (often applied to identical twins).

    There are also all the fruit/vegetable terms to indicate money (i.e. bananas, cabbage, lettuce, etc.).

    Since I’m not British my context on this one may be a bit iffy, but I’ve heard the British comedian Benny Hill refer to buxom women as “all that meat and no potatoes.” Whether that’s a common phrase I don’t know, but I’ll throw it out there.

    Of course a person who is mentally ill may be called “nuts” or “nutty as a fruitcake.”

    When a person has been in the water for a while they “prune” and us old folks get to looking pretty pruney.

    Then there is “corny” comedy, “cornball” jokes, and the Cornbread Mafia (a Southern-US criminal syndicate).

    “We go together like peas and carrots” means two people are highly compatible.

    To “veg out” means to relax and take it easy, probably in front of the TV or similar entertainment. (see ‘couch potato’)

    I have GOT to get a different hobby.

  • Jon

    Given that the Winston Churchill allegedly used the phrase in 1943: “We shall continue to operate on the Italian donkey at both ends, with a carrot and with a stick” it would appear that if there has been a shift away from “a carrot on a stick” it happened a long time ago 🙂

    Worldwide Words says:

    The combination of carrot and stick, with the image of an animal being offered a tasty encouragement at one end while being thumped with a stick at the other, is of the nineteenth century:

    It was this carrot and stick discipline to which Mr. John Mill was subjected, and which he accepted dutifully as flowing from that perfect wisdom of which up to this time his father had been the representative.

    [The Reality of Duty: As Illustrated by the Autobiography of Mr John Stuart Mill, by Lord Blatchford; Contemporary Review, August 1876.]
    http://www.worldwidewords.org/backissues/wbi090214.txt

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