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What Does It Mean to Get "Blood from a Turnip"?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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The phrase, “you can’t get blood from a turnip,” is one of the more colorful idioms in the English language. The meaning of the saying is that it’s impossible to produce a desired item or outcome from an object or situation that could not, in any case, provide it. In other words, this phrase is used to show that where potential doesn’t exist, none can be realized.

Some word historians claim that the phrase, “you can’t get blood from a turnip,” has evolved from similar phrases ever time. One example is the use of the idiom, “you can’t get honey from a rock,” where the rock is a classic example of something that does not yield either honey, or any other desirable food substance. In some of these cases, it seems that the phrase has been constructed partially to address ideas of alchemy, sorcery, or other magic, where some unnatural potential may have been thought to exist. More commonly, though, the phrase is a statement of common-sense, universally recognized limitations in the physical world.

In modern uses of the phrase "get blood from a turnip" is often used as an allegory for financial gain. Someone might use the it to suggest that, regardless of aggressive tactics, a company or other party may not be able to get payment of a bill from someone who is in poverty, or who does not have the discretionary capital to pay off the debt. This is a major use of the phrase as popular slang in English-speaking communities.

The origin of this phrase is not entirely clear. Some speculate that it goes all the way back to the historic Old Testament, where two sons, Cain and Abel, each provided a sacrifice to the Judeo-Christian God. One of these was in the form of an animal product, and the other one was in vegetable form. The difference between these two led to a significant antithesis that has produced a lot of commentary through the ages. Some feel that the phrase, “you can’t get blood from a turnip,” may refer to the lesser capacity of the undesired vegetable sacrifice in the story.

More recently, "you can’t get blood from a turnip," has been included in popular dictionaries of idioms, sayings, and clichés from the comprehensive lexicon of the English language. Some people still use it in various ways. It’s interesting to note that the phrase has survived, even though the turnip is not a major part of popular culinary culture in many English-speaking societies.

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Discussion Comments
By anon944283 — On Apr 06, 2014

Turnip juice can be red, like blood, but now matter how much you need or want blood, turnips cannot give you what you want. Though, superficially, you could delude yourself into thinking the facsimile, by force of will, could become the approximate object of desire. Hence, the expression, which cautions us not to pursue that line of thought. At least, that is how I always interpreted the idiom.

By Azuza — On Jul 17, 2012

I had no idea that a popular phrase about turnip blood could possibly have biblical origins! I do remember learning about Cain and Abel and their respective sacrifices in Sunday school though, and about how the vegetable sacrifice wasn't considered as good as the animal sacrifice.

I think it's interesting that a phrase that isn't meant to be taken literally may have started off having literally meaning. Because in the context of a sacrifice, you can indeed get blood from an animal, but you certainly can't get any blood from a vegetable!

By ceilingcat — On Jul 16, 2012

@JessicaLynn - My mom says, "You can't squeeze blood from a turnip" all the time. Maybe it's a mom thing? Either way I've always though this phrase was very funny and descriptive.

Aside from hearing my mom say it, I do often hear people use this phrase in the context of money. Right when I graduated college a pretty serious economic recession happened, and a lot of people I knew (myself included) were broke. A lot of my friends had trouble paying their student loans and other debts they had accrued during college because they couldn't find jobs.

During that time, I heard a lot of people say stuff like, "Well, they can try to come after me, but I don't have any money. You can't get blood out of a turnip, you know?"

By JessicaLynn — On Jul 16, 2012

Interestingly enough, my mom says a combination of two of the phrases mentioned in this article. Instead of saying, "You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip" or "You can't get honey out of a stone" she says, "You can't get blood out of a stone."

I think any of those three phrases will get the job done, because they definitely make the point. You can't get blood or honey out of a stone or a turnip! I imagine there are about a million other ways to express this sentiment too.

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