In honor of my return from a five-week stay in Australia, a post in honor of one of the first Australianisms I encountered on my first visit there, four years ago. Stuart — who collected me and the student group I was leading at the Melbourne airport and drove us to town — commented, vis a vis the national character, on the “tall poppy.” I forget his exact explanation but here’s the OED definition: “chiefly Australian. a prominent or conspicuously successful person or thing, frequently with implication of attracting hostility from envious detractors.” Stuart suggested that the tall poppy syndrome — the reflex to attack anybody who stood out from the crowd by accomplishing anything — was a national characteristic and, to some extent, problem.
The metaphor originated in sixth century B.C.E. Rome — specifically, Wikipedia says, in
Livy’s account of the tyrannical Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. He is said to have received a messenger from his son Sextus Tarquinius asking what he should do next in Gabii, since he had become all-powerful there. Rather than answering the messenger verbally, Tarquin went into his garden, took a stick, and symbolically swept it across his garden, thus cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies that were growing there. The messenger, tired of waiting for an answer, returned to Gabii and told Sextus what he had seen. Sextus realised that his father wished him to put to death all of the most eminent people of Gabii, which he then did.
Green’s Dictionary of Slang lists examples of the term being used in nineteenth-century Britain, but fifteen of the twenty citations from 1869 on are from or in reference to Australia or New Zealand, including this from Richard Beckett’s 1986 Dinkum Aussie Dictionary:
Tall poppy: Any Australian who reads more than the sporting results and knows how to use snail tongs. Someone who aspires to intellectual excellence and cannot tell the difference between one make of car and another. The species is much hated in Australia and is always being cut down to size.
Here’s what the News on the Web (NOW) corpus, which contains 9 billion articles from 2010 to the present, says about the frequency of use of “tall poppy” by country:
About half of the twenty-three U.S. hits are actually by or about Australians. But that still leaves a few examples.
- Actress and singer Carrie Brownstein said in an interview: “How comfortable one is taking credit for their work depends on the person. I think tall poppy syndrome is endemic to smaller creative communities, but I also really value the fairly anti-capitalist approach of the more radical artistic communities from which I came.
- Tech businesswoman Marian Salzman wrote in a Forbes article that Meghan Markle “may be under great scrutiny because the tall poppy often gets chopped down, but I think she’s a 2020 version of John F. Kennedy Jr. circa the mid-’80s.” (This was written in July 2019.)
- New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in her scorecard for the second Democratic presidential debate in August 2019 (how long ago that seems), wrote of then-candidate Kamala Harris: “Tall poppy syndrome. After she garroted Biden in the first debate, everyone came after her, challenging her health care plan as she struggled to explain it herself.”
As we are wont to do, some Americans have tried to turn the expression on his head. In 2018, two entrepreneurs started a company to protect people, especially women, against online harassment. They called it Tall Poppy. One of the founders, Leigh Honeywell, explained it to Fast Company: “The idea of tall poppy syndrome is that…anyone who becomes prominent in their field or in politics or whatever, they get cut down. So we protect the tall poppies.”