Cabbaging onto a New Leaf

It is one of those phrases I never think about until someone else boggles. I was talking about maps and navigational charts, and observed that I had possessed one for the area under discussion, “but a student cabbaged onto it and I haven’t gotten a current one.” The instructor blinked hard, and observed that my dialect and my accent did not match. And added that he understood the meaning, but had never heard “cabbage” used as a verb.

When I was growing up, at least within the Red family, “to cabbage onto” something was to steal, often by borrowing and somehow never returning it. I never thought about it being somewhat unusual. “Took a cotton to her,” is common in the US South, or was. “Turn over a new leaf,” even though it didn’t refer to plants. But “to cabbage?” Apparently it is a Midwesternism, found in Nebraska and parts of the Dakotas. Now, these are states settled by people who grew and stored and consumed large amounts of cabbage as part of their native cuisines (Germans, Bohemians, Scandinavians, Irish, Poles, Mennonites and Hutterites). So my guess is that cabbage theft was known, and disapproved of, and so “to cabbage” meaning “to steal” became part of the regional dialect. However, the OED says that the oldest usage of cabbage as a synonym for “to steal” goes back to 1793, and England, so who knows.

Cabbage onto. “To take a cotton to” meaning to like, which might come from how sticky short-staple cotton fibers are (they cling to everything because of static). “To tree” means to chase some animal or someone up a tree, literal or otherwise.* English doesn’t seem to have many other instances where a plant is verbed. Perhaps “to tomato” in the sense of to pelt someone with rotten produce, perhaps. I’ve never come across “to turnip,” or “to cucumber.” As metaphors and similes, sure. “Cool as a cucumber,” “red as a beet,” “he’s in a pickle,” which originally referred to the keg, barrel, or vat of brine used to preserve whatever was being pickled.

English is strange.

*”To pine” as a verb goes back a ways, but traces to Latin poena meaning a punishment, not pinus (also Latin) as in the tree.

7 thoughts on “Cabbaging onto a New Leaf

  1. Hmmm . . .

    If “to cabbage” means to steal or “permanently borrow” something, and if doing so lands one in a pickle, wouldn’t it be logical to say that the person doing the cabbaging, and now in a pickle, has been “sauerkrauted”?


  2. From your description, it seems that there’s an implied “to openly take”, related to the difficulty one would have concealing a cabbage upon one’s person.

    As opposed to “to palm”.
    After all, it would be as difficult to palm a cabbage, but you could cabbage a palm

  3. Is the “onto” a required part of the phrase? Can you just say “she cabbaged my shoe?”

  4. Huh, never heard that one before… Re pine, so to ‘pine for the fjords’ is to seek punishment??? Wonder what the Vikings would think about that…

    • Not exactly, but close. The Middle English (taken via Old English from Latin) meant “to starve.” So if someone is starved of affection, they would pine away just as if they were starved of food.

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