The Language Vegetable Problem

August 10, 2017

Thanks to globalisation, we can now get a glimpse into the life of a person on a different continent without ever having to leave our homes. This has, of course, brought up a number of challenges, such as the loss of independent culture. But it has also brought us a lot closer to understanding each other.

It also helps that most of us speak a common language- English. Even though we share a common language, however, we have also noticed how that language is different in other parts of the world. Through our screens, we can see how people have phrases that mean something completely different to us.

For example, calling someone a madam in England is polite, but calling someone a madam in America might just get you slapped. This is a strange occurrence, but a common one that most of us get used to. Travellers often have to be careful about certain words and phrases. An American in Britain might search high and low for a zucchini, before eventually finding a Courgette.

And while many Brits in Australia might find what they are looking for in a supermarket, they’re still going to be left scratching their head over some unfamiliar terms. All this just to find some vegetables? As a frequent traveller, I call this the language-vegetable problem. It seems that we are all separated by a common language, and this raises a few questions. First and foremost, why do Brits, Americans and Australians have radically different vegetable names.

Courgette or Zucchini?

These members of the Cucurbita pepo family, were farmed in Central and South America for centuries before European explorers even got their funding. By the 1500’s they had made their way onto European dinner tables, and a dispute arose immediately.

Zucchinis in Italy, and Courgettes in France, with neither willing to compromise on their chosen names. Eventually Courgettes made it into British homes, where they stayed and due to an influx of Italian immigrants to America, the zucchini made its home there. Zucchini isn’t that hard to say, so the Americans allowed it to settle.

Now, both sides looked to Australia who also chose to use the term “zucchini”. Not to be biased or anything, but zucchini is a lot easier to say than courgette.

Beetroot or Beets?

This is a fun one. Sometimes, words change in different continents not because of immigrants or customs, but because of the people. For example, the people of Britain feel the need to say Beetroot, which comes from the Latin name Beta Vulgaris. Americans and Australians on the other hand are simple too busy to be bothered with such fuss and therefore refer to them as beets.

Spring Onion or Scallion?

There is a common misconception that green onions and scallions are the same thing. They are not. Scallions are often mistaken for green onions and can also be found under the names of “Welsh onion” and “Japanese bunching onion”. So, which of these are correct?

A true scallion has a long green stalk and a white tip that doesn’t have a bulb. Scallions can also be called spring onions and terms such as shallots, green shallots and salad onions are used to identify scallions. The actual name comes from the ancient Philistine city Ashkelon (Latin name Ascalonia), where it is rumoured that these onions were first cultivated.

This is an interesting case of names being different due to a common misconception and the variety of names that are available. In other words, someone couldn’t remember the name of a scallion and simply described it, the name took off and stuck. While others stubbornly refuse to give up the original name. Isn’t language a wonder?

Swede or Rutabaga?

The vegetable in question was first noticed by Swedish botanist, Gaspard Bauhin, who noted it growing wild. This led to the name “Swedish turnip” or simply swede. This shortened name was made popular in many Commonwealth nations and still sticks around today, which is why Australians and Brits use the term “swede”.

At some point, Americans adopted the term “Rutabaga” from the old Swedish word Rotabagge, which when roughly translated, means “root ram”. We aren’t sure why this distinction occurred, but we’ll side with the Americans on this one because Rutabaga is a lot more fun to say than swede.

Arugula or Rocket?

In possibly one of the strangest twists ever, the Brits have the more fun name for a vegetable. This leafy green was first used by the Romans who referred to it as Ruchetta. It eventually made its way over the Alps to France, where it became Roquette. As it made its way over the English Channel, the “qu” was dropped for the “ck” which sounded more Anglican, I suppose. And the “ette” was eventually shortened to “et”.

Meanwhile, in America, the Italian term “rucola” was brought across the seas. Somehow the term was changed to Arugula, but only in America, because Italians still use Rucola.

A Citizen of the World:

You’ve finally made it through the foreign shopping trip, and you now have all your favourite vegetables in your shopping basket. You understand that these different names are due to a series of factors.

Sometimes immigrants bring their terms with them and it sticks. Sometimes an innocent mistake on the part of some unknown person is the cause of a phrase sticking to an entire country. Sometimes most people use a certain term and it stays and sometimes a term or name is tailored for the country.

You are feeling world wise and certainly very smart. You think to yourself that maybe this whole travelling thing isn’t all that hard. And as you walk up to the cashier, feeling satisfied and contemplating immigration, you smile at the cashier.

He/she smiles back and you look down at their name badge to start a conversation, but you freeze as your eyes capture the sight. The name badges in this country are different from those back home. Great.