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Why does the verb to cabbage mean to steal?

cabbage

STEAL, FILCH

They also cabbaged our bats, balls, and gloves. — H. L. Mencken

[Merriam-Webster Dictionary]

Incidentally, M-W is perhaps the only dictionary (of the many online dictionaries) that lists this use of the word: hence the question.

It interests me greatly how a simple word I had always known to be used for only a vegetable can also mean all these things:

  1. A person with severely reduced mental capacities due to brain damage.
  2. A stupid person
  3. Money
  4. Marijuana leaf
  5. To do nothing; to idle
  6. To steal
  7. grab and hold onto someone with one's hands (cabbage onto someone or something)

And why does it mean all these seemingly unrelated things?

  • 5
    I can't say that I've ever heard the term used in the US. – Hot Licks Nov 20 at 0:56
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    I would add it is common to use it in the sense of cannibalizing a part. I had to cabbage an alternator off an old tractor today. – Phil Sweet Nov 20 at 5:02
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    Presumably the 'money' sense is from green banknotes. Cabbage can also mean scraps of fabric left over from cutting out a garment (according to Collins Dictionary, scraps pilfered by a tailor from a customer's material). – Kate Bunting Nov 20 at 9:03
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    2 is presumably derived directly from 1 (see also "idiot" and many more offensive words); "vegetable" is also used is a related way, and we even have "vegetative state" in the medical literature for someone conscious but apparently unaware. – Chris H Nov 20 at 13:01
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The verb “to cabbage” seems unrelated to Cockney Rhyming Slang:

The OED, for this meaning, suggests

Cabbage (v.)

Etymology: Probably < cabbage n.3 (see discussion at that entry)[1].

In quot. 1703, the Spanish original uses hurtar, the usual Spanish word for ‘to steal’.

1. transitive and intransitive. Of a tailor or dressmaker: to appropriate (offcuts of cloth) as a perk when cutting out clothes. Now rare.

1703 P. Motteux et al. tr. M. de Cervantes Hist. Don Quixote III. ii. xlv. 438 He could not but imagine that..I had a mind to Cabbage some of his Cloath [Sp. él..debióse de imaginar..que..yo le quería hurtar alguna parte del paño].

However, this seems unlikely as the Spanish for "cabbage" is nothing like "hurtar" and "hurtar" sounds nothing like "cabbage"

Looking at the noun, which is recorded earlier:

[1] 1. Offcuts of cloth appropriated by tailors and dressmakers as a perk when cutting out clothes.

1663 Hudibras: Second Pt. iii. 56 For as Taylors preserve their Cabbage, So Squires take care of Bag and Baggage.

1935 A. J. Pollock Underworld Speaks 17/1 Cabbages, bolts of stolen woolens.

1986 Sunday Express Mag. 6 Apr. 86/3 Either the cutter or the proprietor might sell the 'cabbage' privately and not put the money through the books.

Here, there is a strong possibility that "cabbage" is the vegetable because, when preparing a cabbage, the leafy part of the vegetable is stripped from the thicker white veins of the leaves of the plant. There, thus, appears to be a parallel in a tailor cutting out the cloth by following the white lines of chalk that the he uses to mark the cloth for cutting.

Added to this is the "-age" suffix can be seen as an ironic reference to the "cabbage" being some sort of "tax" on the cloth that is taken by the tailor:

OED

-age suffix:

  1. Forming nouns denoting a charge, tax, or duty levied on what is denoted by the first element, as ballastage n., housage n., poundage n.1, rowage n., etc.

This use of "-age" was very much standard pre-18th century.

In the entry for the noun, the OED has a long comment

However, The OED in the entry for "cabbage" noun = stolen off-cuts:

Compare the following quots.:

1648 R. Herrick Hesperides sig. G2v Thou who wilt not love, doe this; Learne of me what Woman is. Something made of thredand thrumme; A meere Botch of all and some. Pieces, patches, ropes of haire; In-laid Garbage ev'ry where.

1648 R. Herrick Hesperides sig. Aa3v Lupes for the outside of his suite has paide; But for his heart, he cannot have it made: The reason is, his credit cannot get The inward carbage for his cloathes as yet.

The first quot. clearly shows an instance of garbage n., probably in a contextual specific sense ‘shreds and patches used as padding’. The second quot. may show a variant of garbage n. (although if so, that variant appears to be unparalleled elsewhere), and it could therefore be taken as providing evidence for a transitional stage between garbage n. and the present word.

And yet, if there were a word "garbage" why would another be required? And why would anyone steal "garbage"?

Alternative etymologies are that the word is < French (now slang) cabasser to set (goods) aside, to steal, to cheat, deceive (second half of the 15th cent. in Middle French), extended use of cabasser to put (goods) into a basket (15th cent.; < cabas basket, panier: see caba n.), or that it is related to Middle French cabuser to deceive, cheat (1405; < ca- , prefix (see cabbage n.1) + abuser abuse v.) and its deverbal derivative cabuse imposture, trick (c1450). However, neither of these suggestions would account for the order of senses in English; both at the noun and at cabbage v.2 the earliest attested senses relate specifically to practices of tailors, rather than to cheating or stealing in general.

On the other hand, this seems reasonable.

| improve this answer | |
  • Thank you for an elaborate answer, Greybeard. I think this makes sense as I also arrived at the same answer. – user405662 Nov 20 at 11:15
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    @user405662 - After reading more, I have to add to the answer, as the OED etymology of the noun mentions "Garbage"... I will do that now. – Greybeard Nov 20 at 11:18
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    And why would anyone steal "garbage"? One man's trash is another man's treasure. – tobyink Nov 21 at 14:21
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Merriam-Webster references this meaning of cabbage by providing a separate note (You cannot find it under the usual dictionary entry itself). It was through a random google search that I happened on the same, and that's why I am answering my own question. I am not sure if this answer would count as the final word on my question but I am sharing it nonetheless because it does touch upon the question.

Here goes:

Does the "filching" meaning of cabbage bring to mind an image of thieves sneaking out of farm fields with armloads of pilfered produce? If so, you're in for a surprise. Today's featured word has nothing to do with the leafy vegetable. It originally referred to the practice among tailors of pocketing part of the cloth given to them to make garments. The verb was cut from the same cloth as an older British noun cabbage, which meant "pieces of cloth left in cutting out garments and traditionally kept by tailors as perquisites." Both of those ethically questionable cabbages probably derived from cabas, the Middle French word for "cheating or theft." The cabbage found in coleslaw, on the other hand, comes from Middle English caboche, which meant "head."

[Merriam-Webster]

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    I think you have hit the nail on the head, particularly with from Middle English caboche, which meant "head." – Greybeard Nov 20 at 11:29
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    Good find, 405, and welcome. But please add a link to your quote (you added the attribution, which too few newer contributors do). – Edwin Ashworth Nov 20 at 11:38
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I would wager that cabbage meaning "to steal" originates from Cockney rhyming slang.

Edit: Having read the comments below, I am less certain. I'll leave the answer here anyway. If nothing else it shows that the origin of a slang term may be far from obvious.

cabbage ---> cabbage patch ---> snatch ---> steal

To understand this, it helps to read a little about Cockney rhyming slang and to study some examples.

To give a brief explanation, one takes a common two-word saying whose second word rhymes with the target word and then omits the second word, saying just the first! This relies on the listener being able to complete the well-known phrase and thus guess the rhyme from the context of the conversation! It sounds complicated until you read (or hear) a few examples.


Note that a cabbage patch is an idiomatic phrase referring to a small patch of land where cabbages are grown. Most British people are familiar with the phrase.

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  • 1
    In the US "Cabbage Patch" refers to a doll. – Hot Licks Nov 20 at 0:57
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    @Hot Licks - Cabbage Patch Dolls were created by Xavier Roberts. They are called Cabbage Patch because when he was a child, he was told by his parents that he came from a cabbage patch so he used that name for his dolls. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xavier_Roberts – chasly - supports Monica Nov 20 at 1:01
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    I've never heard 'cabbage' used to mean steal either but the rhyming slang makes sense. Perhaps someone could ask Danny Dyer. – BoldBen Nov 20 at 1:07
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    @HotLicks Cabbage Patch - patch where cabbages are grown: pumpkin patch - place where pumpkins are grown. I thought both phrases were American. – BoldBen Nov 20 at 1:09
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    "This relies on the listener being able to complete the well-known phrase and thus guess the rhyme" - A lot of rhyming slang is too obscure to guess when the rhyming word is omitted. And sometimes that's the point. – nnnnnn Nov 20 at 2:25

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