Daily Archives: November 3, 2010


Take one Italian word for “gourd”: zucca. Add a diminutive suffix, ino, to make zucchino (note that the root is feminine but the suffix makes it masculine; note also that the h is added to the spelling to keep the consonant as [k] rather than becoming an alveopalatal affricate). Pluralize to make zucchini. Borrow into English and serve, one or more at a time.

Yes, it’s hard to miss the Italianness of this word. Generally when you see a cch there’s a very good chance the word has come from Italian (yecch notwithstanding), and if you add the z it just ramps the odds up further. Italian, unlike English (with exceptions, e.g., bookkeeper), actually says double consonants as double consonants, and it happens to like them. And in Italian, anytime you have a /kk/ before a front vowel (/i/ or /e/ are the only two in Italian), you have to add the h after the cc – because the letter k is not as a rule used in Italian words (excepting loans).

But of course when it’s borrowed over to English, some of this is elided; most of us don’t know all the rules of Italian, and we certainly don’t follow them in English. As mentioned, double letters, except across morpheme boundaries, are almost always said as single sounds in English, so we say this word as [zu ki ni]. And since we don’t have a connection between sound and spelling for double letters, it’s common to see various confusions: zuchinni, zucchinni, zuchini, zuccini, zucinni.

The other thing we do with loan words, more often than not, is conform them to our morphology. We say gondolas, not gondole, for instance. Generally we borrow the singular and handle it like an English noun stem. But not always: if the idea of a borrowed plural morphology gets entrenched for a word – for instance, criterion/criteria, alumnus/alumni, graffito/graffiti (among a certain set, anyway), etc. – then we will keep the borrowed plural too. And sometimes there’s a bit of fussiness and controversy: I know quite a few people who get prickly when they see or hear “a panini.” “A panino!” they think or sometimes even say. “One panino, two panini.”

You’ll notice in the case of panini that it’s the plural that’s being used as a singular. And, since nothing escapes you, you will already be thinking about how that is also the case with zucchini. Yes indeedy. But the difference is that panini is a fairly fresh borrowing, with still a very noted Italian flavour, whereas zucchini came into English nearly a century ago (not so much in England, where courgette took hold) and it just happens there weren’t enough tut-tutters to make the singular stick. (In fact, the rather redundant zucchini squash was – and still in some quarters is – common, too, with no pedants seen out trying to stop it.)

Ah, the singular stick – how often do you ever have a singular stick of zucchini anyway? They tend to grow in such quantity that if you have friends who grow them you’ll come home to plastic bags of the stuff hanging on your doorknob, and if you buy them at the store they’re so cheap you might as well get two. You can see multiplicity even in the appearance of the word (just by coincidence, of course): two i‘s like two zucchini (or, as is often said, two zucchinis), two c‘s like two slices of zucchini (note its use there as a mass object: not slices of a zucchini), and even the u and n really the same shape rotated.

But what’s the most common word seen next to zucchini? One. Or, rather, 1. The second most common is 2. Why? Well, other common words it goes with include add, cut, medium, and small. Do you see where this is going? That’s right: you usually see this word in recipes.

Commas before quotes

Does quoted material always need a comma before it? Not necessarily. When the quoted material is within a narrative frame – even if it’s the only thing in the narrative frame – and we’re being taken to the scene, as it were, a comma is generally used. But when the quoted material is being treated as an instance of an utterance of that phrase, and the verb is the main thing rather than being an entrance point to dialogue (in other words, when the quoted material is truly the complement of the verb rather than an act of locution introduced), a comma is not called for. Some comparisons:

These are the sort of people who say “Sure thing” and then don’t do anything. [no comma there – it’s not bringing in an actual dialogue situation]

The pepper jar broke. Mary sneezed. John said “Aw, nuts.” The cat fled. [what John said is being treated as another action like Mary’s sneeze]

The pepper jar broke. Mary sneezed. John said, “Aw, nuts.” The cat fled. [you’re expecting further dialogue here – at the very least, the instance is framed as one of a dialogue situation]

Don’t shout “No, don’t do it!” at an actor in a play. [don’t use a comma here – this is a general comment, not an entry into a specific situation]

John stood, horrified. He shouted, “No, don’t do it!” at the actor. [this is an entry to a dialogue situation, even if no further speech is said]

John is a fool. Last night at the play he shouted “No, don’t do it!” at an actor. You can’t take him anywhere. [this is not entering a narrative]

John is a fool. Last night at the play, he shouted, “No, don’t do it!” at an actor. I had to grab him and drag him back into his seat. An usher ran over and glared at him uselessly. [this is entering a narrative]

In the end, the General said “Nuts.” [there was something he said at the end, and we’re just establishing what it was]

In the end, the General said, “Nuts.” [it’s taking us there to the instance of utterance]

There was the time Mary came home and found Debbie Travis in her living room. She ran out of the house shrieking “It’s her! It’s her!” and the camera crew had to sprint after her. [this is a more anecdotal, broad-view description]

Mary walked into her living room and saw a large number of people she knew. In the midst of them was Debbie Travis. Mary’s eyes popped. She ran out of the house shrieking, “It’s her! It’s her!” as the camera crew sprinted after her. [involved narrative]

There’s a certain amount of wiggle room and, yes, some variation in opinion on this. It can be a slight but important variation in tone in some cases; in other cases, the wrong punctuation will make it jarring.


First of all, is a yank a jerk?

Well, in some parts of the world, certainly, people will tell you Yanks are jerks. Which is not necessarily fair, though I have to admit American tourists can often be quite grating, even if you are one (I tend to lean to my Canadian side when travelling – as though Canadians are never obnoxious, hah). But there’s Yank and there’s yank.

Both have the same sound, reminiscent of pulling on, say, a rope attached to something or someone – short, beginning with an accelerating impulse and then ending abruptly. Both have the same letters, with that final k like a wall with something being pulled away from it and that initial y like a wishbone that parties pull on – but the capital Y is perhaps more wishbone-like. Also more dowsing-rod-like.

But Yank is short for Yankee, which outside the US means “American” and in the US more often means “American from the northeastern states, or specifically from New England”. Its origins are not altogether certain, but most likely it comes from Dutch Janke “Johnny” or Jan Kees, a dialectal variation on Jan Kaas “John Cheese”, used as a derisive nickname (remember that there were many Dutch settlers in the northeastern US in the 17th century). The lower-case yank, on the other hand, seems to come originally from Scotland, where it means “a sudden sharp blow” (yerk is another word in the same vein); the “sudden pull” sense comes from the US, and the verb is formed from that noun.

So, in the American sense, yank is synonymous with “jerk”, but in the sense “American” it is not necessarily so. But it is good to have a word yank that is like jerk but different, since jerk has its own flavours – jerkin and jerky, certainly, but also jerk as in “annoying person” (as we have already implied) and jerk in some other, ruder uses. And given that yank is often used in conjunction with out, away, open, and, yes, off, that matters. It’s also good to be able to speak literally of “yanking someone around”, whereas “jerking someone around” has an overriding figurative sense. Yank also has a more completive feel: if we talk about “yanking someone or something”, that means pulling them or it from a program or lineup. “Jerking them” is not available for that kind of use.

And along with the imitative feel of it, it does get a little boost from echoes of yikes and all the ank rhymes (thank, spank, tank, and so on), and that [jæ] onset that could be positive but is always energetic emotionally. And, of course, the inevitably American flavour of it.

Thanks to Carolyn Bishop for suggesting yank – back in September 2008.