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.

2 responses to “zucchini

  1. In a lecture about music – I forget the particular word he was illustrating – Dr. Robert Greenberg pointed out that words like spaghetti and ravioli are, technically, the plural of spaghetto and raviolo, which I found both striking and a little amusing. Since we use them as mass objects (like your example of slices of zucchini), the plural/singular status of these words doesn’t seem to matter much.

    (On a technical note – is there an option to allow users preview their comments in the WordPress theme you use? Such a feature would be convenient for proofreading, if available.)

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