On the nomenclature of certain cucurbitaceous plants

M. J. Driscoll

In recent years it has been possible, at a price, to procure in Iceland the variety of small cucurbitaceae known in English variously as courgettes or zucchini. As is often the case when a new and previously unknown product is put on the Icelandic market there was a period of instability with regard to what it should be called, a problem no doubt exacerbated by the plethora of names by which the product in question was known in other countries. Courgette, the name used in France and Britain, could easily, the present writer felt, have been Icelandicised as *korsétta, but this appears not to have occurred to anyone apart from the writer, and the word is used by no-one apart from the members of his immediate family, and probably not even by them. There were, on the other hand, a number of heroic early attempts made to render the word zucchini, favoured in North America and much of non-Francophone Europe, more palatable to the Icelandic consumer, the author's personal favourite being sússíni, which has the virtue of rigorously eschewing all un-Icelandic characters, admittedly to the point of incomprehensibility. The problem posed by the existence of the zucchini's yellow cousin was solved easily and simply by giving the buyer a choice between sússíni, græn and sússíni, gul, a distinction not recognised in the English speaking world at least, whence these vegetables are likely to have been imported, where only the green variety is known as zucchini (or courgettes), the others being referred to as marrows in Britain or summer squash in North America. Marrow was perhaps never a serious contender for adoption into Icelandic, the cognate mergur having an established meaning already, but squash, spelt, again in a variety of ways, but most often skvass, was occasionally noted for both varieties, again with the differentiation between grænt and gult. And then a year or two ago, as if word had come from on high – perhaps it had, in the form of some grænmetisorðanefndarfyrirmæli – solidarity reigned in the restaurants and supermarkets of greater Reykjavík, and everywhere one went one saw the same new name: kúrbítur. Intrigued, the present author decided to undertake an investigation of the origins of these various terms. What follows is the result of that investigation.

Zucchini comes, not surprisingly, from Italian, the plural of zucchino, a diminutive of zucco, from Late Latin cucutia, from cucurbita, “an edible gourd” (cf. Sanskrit carbhatah, “cucumber”). Related to this is zucchetto, the skullcap worn by certain ecclesiastics in the Roman Catholic church (the colour varying according to the rank of the wearer); zucco, in other words, could also mean “head”, as can gourd – in, for example, “use your gourd” – and squash in English, especially North American, slang. The word squash, incidentally, is a Native American term, from Narraganset askutasquash, meaning, interestingly, “a green vegetable eaten green”, i.e. young. The other squash, the kind played with racquets and rubber balls, is unrelated, deriving from Old French esquasser, from Latin exquassare, “to shatter, crush, or pulp”, presumably on the basis of that generally being one’s intention vis-à-vis one’s opponent when playing that game; this is obviously also the origin of the name of the drink squash. Gourd, in English, is reserved for the inedible cucurbitaceae, used now principally when dried as decoration but in earlier times also as drinking vessels. The word was borrowed from the French gourde, earlier coorde, and derives ultimately from Latin cucurbita. Courgette, the name by which they are known in France and also in Britain, is the diminutive of courge, an alternative form of gourde, and derives therefore also from cucurbita. Courge and gourde are both used colloquially in French to refer to the intellectually challenged, possibly, but not necessarily, through confusion with the French adjective gourd(e), “dull, stupid, heavy”, from Vulgar Latin gurdus, “heavy, stupid” (it is in the sense of “heavy”, presumably, that gourde came to be the name of the standard monetary unit of that much troubled country Haiti). I say not necessarily because even in classical Latin cucurbita was used also in the sense of a “dolt, pumpkin-head”, and in Italian too we find the term zuccone used of the dull or dim-witted, particularly those “with learning difficulties”. The Spanish calabaza, “pumpkin or gourd” (borrowed into English as calabash), is also used of the intellectually retrograde, as for example in the waggish greeting ¿Qué pasa, calabaza?, “What’s happening, pumpkin-head?”, which readers are urged to try out when next in the barrios of Los Angeles. In Spain we find the expression más soso que la calabaza, “thicker than a pumpkin”, used in particular of the socially unrefined. The diminutive, calabacín, is used of the smaller varieties of marrows, e.g. the courgette. The etymology of the Spanish word – used in fact in all the languages of the Iberian peninsula – is unclear, but one possibility is that it is oriental in origin, related to Persian kharbuza, “watermelon”, which looks itself suspiciously like a cognate of cucurbita.

The fact that the French, Italian and Spanish names for the courgette are all diminutives underlines an important fact, namely that courgettes should be picked and eaten when small, preferably no more than five or six inches in length. After that the flesh becomes increasingly woody and bitter to the taste. The courgettes one encounters in the vegetable section of Icelandic supermarkets are almost obscenely large – a good foot long some of them – and look as if they might have been prize-winners at some agricultural show, rather than anything designed for the table. This is presumably to be seen as yet another example of rampant American cultural – and culinary – imperialism, since, as with so much else, they seem to prefer them bigger over there.

The Icelandic word kúrbítur, scarcely used before the present century, means, according to the few dictionaries in which it is found, the same as grasker, and is, according to Ásgeir Blöndal, “e.t.v. komið úr þ[ýsku]”. Grasker is, of course, the cucurbita pepo, the pumpkin, also called glóðarker in Icelandic (although only in the same sense as bananas are “really” called bjúgaldin). Pumpkin, in earlier English pumpion or pompion (the here perhaps somewhat inappropriate diminutive ending -kin, a borrowing from Dutch, being introduced by analogy to words like bumpkin), derives through French pompon, from Latin pepō, from Greek πέπων, “a gourd or melon eaten when ripe”. Pumpkins, in other words, should, unlike courgettes, be allowed to ripen to their fullest extent. Grasker is a borrowing from Danish græskar, older form græskarve, used also of the pumpkin, the second element of which derives, funnily enough, through Middle Low German from our old friend cucurbita. Danish also has the word kyrbis, and Swedish kurbits (alongside gräskar), both borrowed from High German Kürbis (Old High German churbiz), used of gourds generally or specifically of the pumpkin, which in turn derives, not surprisingly, from Latin cucurbita. All is truly one, as anyone who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies will have been assured.

Actually, not all. The word cucumber, despite the similarity of both signified and signifier – the cucumber is in fact a close relative of the courgette – derives from the seemingly unrelated cucumis, a word of unknown origin, or so they claim (it is possible, however, perhaps even likely, that the reduplication in cucurbita is through analogy to cucumis). The Icelandic name for the cucumber, gúrka or agúrka, although it might also seem a likely candidate for ultimate derivation from cucurbita, in fact derives, through Danish agurk, Low German agurke (cf. High German Gurke, early modern Dutch gurk or agurk, now generally augurk – the diminutive of this, agurkijn, is the source of the English word gherkin, used only of small cucumbers when pickled), and via the Slavic languages (cf. Polish ogorek, Russian огурец, Czech okurka), from (Late) Greek ἀγγούριον, “watermelon”. Further back, its etymology is uncertain, but it could be related to classical Greek άγουρος, meaning “unripe”, the idea being that cucumbers, like squash and courgettes, but unlike pumpkins, are eaten young (see above). It is also worth noting that in colloquial German Gurke can also be used of a fool (readers may recall the brouhaha following the statement – made in fact by one of the players – that Beckenbauer's 1986 World Cup team was ein Gurkentruppe). Perhaps all is one after all.

So, a few conclusions: it would appear that in the interests of linguistic purity the French and Italian derivatives of the Latin cucurbita have been rejected in favour of the German, even though that is the only one of the three which is not actually used of the vegetable in question. No matter; the etymology is there, and the word kúrbítur, nicely reversing as it does the zweite Lautverschiebung, certainly sounds Icelandic – although one restaurateur confessed to me that most people seemed to think it was a type of fish. Dvergbítur, which has been noted in a number of cookery books, suggests that there are several kinds of bítar, some of which are smaller than others. While the present author is keen in a general way to encourage anything likely to lead to a reduction in the size of courgettes currently available commercially, he is ultimately unable to lend his support to this term. Rather, he feels, -ker, which does after all derive from cucurbita, could be combined with a descriptive prefix such as ung-, smá-, or, if necessary, dverg-, to produce an acceptable term for the courgette in Icelandic.

Finally, the author should like to present the following recipe, something any of the numerous Icelandic pilgrims to the Holy Land could have encountered on his (or her) way through the Levant, or Gudda might have prepared for Hallgrímur after her time amongst the Saracens.


Seven or eight small courgettes (or, failing that, two or three large ones)
sultanas (or raisins)
anchovy fillets, tinned, in oil
pine kernels (chopped almonds can be substituted, or they can be left out altogether)
wine vinegar (preferably balsamic, but white will do)
olive oil
salt and pepper
glass of white wine

The courgettes should be “topped and tailed” and then sliced lengthwise (if using monsters, they should be cut in half lengthwise and in halves or thirds the other way, too) into strips no more than an eighth of an inch thick. Finely chop two or three cloves of garlic (depending on the number and nature of your appointments the next day) and brown lightly in about a tablespoon of oil. Add the courgettes and toss in the oil for two to three minutes, by which time they should have softened and begun to colour slightly. Add at least two tablespoons of vinegar (do not be alarmed by any smarting in your eyes or difficulty you may have in breathing; you have not put in too much). Cover the pot and simmer for a few minutes. Drain the anchovy fillets and chop them up, then add them, the pine kernels and sultanas to the pot, along with salt (largely unnecessary because of the anchovies and not terribly good for you anyway) and pepper to taste. Cook the mixture for a few more minutes uncovered and then remove it from the heat. It is better if left to stand, covered, for a few minutes before serving, and can also be served cool (i.e. room temperature, not refrigerated). The whole process should take no more than about fifteen minutes, during which time the cook should drink the glass of white wine.

© M. J. Driscoll   This article first appeared, in a slightly different form, in Strengleikar slegnir Robert Cook, 25. nóvember 1994 (Reykjavík, 1994).