This passage is from The Children's Bach by Helen Garner

‘She was wearing these daggy flares,’ said Elizabeth, ‘with embroidered insets.’

‘I got my hand jammed between two speaker boxes,’ said Philip. ‘My finger burst like a sausage.’

‘You know?’ said Vicki. ‘One of those horror movies where she drives up to this house and gets dismembered?’

‘I got to Reno on the bus at eight o’clock in the morning,’ said Philip. People were stumbling about the streets in full evening dress.’

She had all the colour and dynamism of a parsnip,’ said Elizabeth. ‘You could not by any stretch of the imagination drum up feelings of sisterhood for her.

I search on the net about the meaning of "parsnip" and I find this:

To have a parsnip mean "something that gives you much happiness"

Does the whole phrase in bold mean:

  1. She was very happy and active that you never feel sorry for her?

  2. She could make a good and happy friend that being with her make you happy and because of that you never feel pity for her and never thought of her as if she is your sister?

  • 14
    I've never heard of the phrase "have a parsnip"
    – Kevin
    Commented May 23, 2021 at 13:56
  • 8
    @OP Urban dictionary is not a useful resource for anything other than decoding slang conversation between "hip cool teens", and especially not useful for a non-Native speaker. Don't use it for trying to interpret books or other normal written content.
    – Brondahl
    Commented May 24, 2021 at 10:07
  • Yes I look it up at urban dictionary. I did not know it is not useful, Lots of thanks for your guide. Commented May 24, 2021 at 11:10
  • 4
    UrbanDictionary can be a useful resource for very modern slang (often of a rude or obscene nature). But this book was published in 1984, way before UD was around, and the word parsnip isn't being used as slang here, but a literal reference to the vegetable. Commented May 24, 2021 at 13:33
  • 1
    To quote Ogden Nash, > The parsnip, Children, I repeat Is merely an anemic beet. Some people find the parsnip edible. Myself I find the thought incredible.
    – bmargulies
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 15:39

1 Answer 1


I don't think "to have a parsnip" is at all related to the meaning here. Rather, this is figurative language. These are parsnips:

white, long, vaguely cone-shaped parsnips

As you can see, parsnips do not have any color. They aren't particularly interesting or "dynamic" either. Since parsnips have no color or dynamism, "all the color and dynamism of a parsnip" is precisely none. A re-write of the sentence which adds in the implied meaning:

She had all the colour and dynamism of a parsnip, that is to say, none at all.

Now, "color" is used figuratively. Instead of in the sense of "a phenomenon of light (such as red, brown, pink, or gray)" (definition 1a), it is in the sense of "vitality, interest" (definition 9). Someone who lacks color would be someone who has a boring personality, and is uninteresting to be around. "Dynamic" is used in the sense of "energetic, forceful" (definition 1b). Someone who lacks dynamism would be someone who does not exhibit/have energy or force of personality. All together, this describes "She" as a person who is boring and dull.

This makes sense when considered with the other part of the description:

You could not by any stretch of the imagination drum up feelings of sisterhood for her.

Someone who is that boring, who lacks "dynamism" and the metaphorical "color" of life and personality, would be someone who is hard to love, as there is nothing interesting about them to appreciate. This sentence is emphatically saying that it is impossible ("not by any stretch of the imagination") to produce, even with effort ("drum up") a feeling of affection or sisterhood for her.

  • 12
    One notes that parsnips are, additionally, not considered a particularly tasty food.
    – Mary
    Commented May 22, 2021 at 17:09
  • 1
    Although its possible color was a double entendre as some people do have a parsnip-esque skin tone ... (slightly jaundiced though I admit)
    – Kinglish
    Commented May 23, 2021 at 22:24
  • 6
    @Mary One notes that people who consider them not particularly tasty are simply not cooking them properly. :) But they certainly don't like the boiling-to-death which was characteristic of English food into the 80s. (Ditto broccoli and cabbage.)
    – Graham
    Commented May 24, 2021 at 10:11
  • 12
    I would disagree with @Mary on the taste front (I like parsnips, but more importantly I don't think they have that reputation). I think there is an element of parsnips being to some extent inherently funny (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inherently_funny_word); the sentence is structured to leave the word 'parsnip' at the end like the punchline of a joke. 'All the colour and dynamism of a piece of paper' is slightly less funny, for example.
    – dbmag9
    Commented May 24, 2021 at 11:16

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