‘spud-bashing’: meanings and origin

The noun spud denotes a potato.

In British-English:
– the noun spud-bashing denotes potato-peeling;
– the verb spud-bash means to peel potatoes;
– the noun spud-basher denotes one who peels potatoes.
—Cf. also the jocular word spud-barber, which, as a noun, denotes one who peels potatoes, and, as a verb, means to peel potatoes.

With reference to potato-peeling, spud-bashing, spud-bash and spud-basher seem to have originated in military slang during the Second World War.

However, spud-bashing, spud-bash and spud-basher have also been used with reference to potato-digging. The earliest occurrence that I have found is from the account of a court case, published in The Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror (Bristol, England) of Wednesday 10th May 1939—the defendant was quoted as declaring the following:

“We left London together on Thursday, April 20, and we were making our way towards Southampton to try and get to Jersey ‘spud-bashing’ (potato digging).”

With reference to potato-digging, spud-basher occurs in the following letter, published in the Bristol Evening Post (Bristol, England) of Monday 22nd May 1939:

Jersey Crops
Would two of your readers like to make up a team for Jersey at once, in reference to the Labour Exchange scheme? Must have references, preferably from a minister of religion.
SPUD BASHER.

With reference to potato-digging, spud-bash occurs in the following from Whittington Barracks Jottings, by W. Emm, published in the Lichfield Mercury (Lichfield, Staffordshire, England) of Friday 15th October 1948:

The local potato harvest has been such that many willing hands were called for, and it is pleasant to reflect that Whittington Barracks has supplied so many volunteers to help “spud-bash.”

The earliest occurrences that I have found of spud-bashing and spud-bash used with reference to potato-peeling are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From Private Life of a Private, published in the Daily Herald (London, England) of Saturday 14th December 1940:

There’s a Little Job for Everybody

The Lad from the Elephant and Castle comes into the hut with a shocked expression on his face—the dazed, frozen expression of a man whose best friend has suddenly hit him in anger—and says:—
“You’ll never guess what.”
We ask him, “What?”
“You’ll never guess,” says the Lad from the Elephant. “Not in twenty million years.”
“What is it?”
“And some people,” says the Lad, “say Join the Army and see the world! Join the Army and scrub the ruddy world. I say Join the Army and peel the ruddy world. Join the Army and polish the ruddy world!”
“But what is it?”
The Lad from the Elephant says: “Go and look at the Detail.”
Some of us go out. Company notices are pinned in a frame outside the Company Office—daily orders which every man has to read.
We look. We read. It is fate: It is written:
ALL MEN No. 55 HUT—POTATO PEELING.
The Lad, who has come to have another look—for he cannot believe the evidence of his eyes—says: “Fatigues! We get fatigues!”
The Orderly Sergeant, who is standing near us, with his book and his bicycle, says: “What do you expect? Toffee-apples and a trip to the Zoo?”
“We done enough fatigues before we come ’ere,” says the Lad.
The Sergeant replies: “What do you mean, enough fatigues? Why, you horrible man, you never have enough fatigues in the Army.”
“Spud-bashing!” says the Lad.
“You’re idle,” asserts the Sergeant, “that’s what you are—idle. You want to be waited on hand and foot—that’s what you want. You’re a grouser; you spread alarm and despondency.”
“I come ’ere to fight,” says the Lad.
“You’ll fight when you’re told to fight,” says the Sergeant.
The Good Boy from Godalming asks: “Will we get a lot of fatigues here, Sergeant?”
“You’ll get your share. Everybody does. We don’t have servants here.
“First of all, your hut’s got to be spotless. There’s a room inspection every morning. So each man has to do his little job. Everybody puts his own bit straight, dusts his bed, and sweeps under it.
“Then one man sweeps all the dirt up; another carries it to the dump and sorts out the waste paper; another cleans the coal box; another refills the fire buckets; another polishes basins.
“Another scrubs the benches; another has to see that the brushes and brooms are clean; another puts the kit-bags in a straight line—and so on.
“There’s a little job for everybody. You muck in, in this army.
“So remember, Smartie, that you’re in the Army now, and do things for yourselves. I’ve done fatigues; the Company Sarnt-Major’s done fatigues; the Regimental Sarnt-Major’s done ’em. It’s one of those things.
“So you’ll bash them spuds and turnips with a good grace. See?”
“I’ll bash them spuds and turnips,” says the Lad from the Elephant. “But I won’t ruddy well bash ’em wiv a good grace. ’Cause I don’t like bashing spuds, Sergeant.”
“Then lump it!” says the Sergeant.

2 & 3-: From two Chuckles cartoons by the British artist and cartoonist Ernest Noble (1881-1958), published in the Evening Despatch (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England):

2-: Of Saturday 8th August 1942:

“I wish one of them daylight raiders would come along ’ere and do a bit of spud bashing.”

3-: Of Friday 18th September 1942:

“’Ear what he said? Even when spud bashing, you want to use yer onion.”

The earliest occurrence that I have found of spud-bashing, used with reference to potato-peeling and in a non-military context, is from Youth News from all Quarters, published in the Sevenoaks Chronicle, Westerham Courier and Kentish Advertiser (Sevenoaks, Kent, England) of Friday 3rd December 1943:

The second week-end of the Leaders’ training course was held at the Oaks’ Youth Centre last Saturday and Sunday. […] The catering arrangements were undertaken by the Oaks, and under the supervision of Miss K. M. Ibbottson and Miss Ayres, the girl members provided excellent meals for the Leaders. The boys also played their part in “spud bashing,” coal heaving and washing up!

The earliest occurrences that I have found of spud-basher used with reference to potato-peeling are from the following poem, published in the Kirkintilloch Herald (Kirkintilloch, Dunbartonshire, Scotland) of Wednesday 6th October 1943 (A.T.S.: Auxiliary Territorial Service, organised in 1941 for women serving in the British army):

LAMENT OF A SPUD BASHER.

The following poem from the pen of a Torrance of Campsie girl, presently serving in the A.T.S. somewhere in England, gained for the writer a prize from the publishers of the Forces’ magazine, “Blighty”:—

It’s a sad, sad tale I tell you
Of an A.T.S. called Private Kate,
Who thought she’d train as a Wireless Op.,
But that was not her fate.

One day she read the details
Of Squad 60—a bunch of cuties—
And her “heart” sank low as she read the words:
“Report for cookhouse duties.”

And all day long she pondered,
And this was one of her wishes,
That at tea that night the A.T.S would revolt
And break all the blue pencil dishes.

But alas! poor Kate was detailed
For a job—it was a smasher—
Tho’ she’d drilled and dusted, marched an morsed,
It was her first time to be a “spud basher.”

Some fools may say it is easy
To peel the skin off a tattie;
They little know what they’re talking about,
Poor Kate was almost batty.

She peeled and peeled and still she peeled,
Till her fingers grew stiff and sore,
And for every bagful that she bashed
They’d bring her a couple more.

That is the end of my story,
But I’ve something else to relate,
Instead of a private, now she is known,
As Chief Spud Basher Kate.

PTE. C. B. HART.