Words at Play

Ten Words from the Harvest

A bumper crop for the feast.

harvest words cornucopia

A symbol of an abundant feast, the cornucopia is literally a horn of plenty, as it translates from the Latin cornu copiae. (The second part relates to our adjective copious). It’s believed that the cornucopia represents the horn from which Zeus was fed as an infant in Greek myth.

harvest words kohlrabi

Kohlrabi took an interesting path to English by way of Italian and German. The vegetable’s Italian name, cavolo rapa, combines that language’s name for “cabbage” and “turnip.” The swollen stem of the kohlrabi plant resembles that of the turnip, even though the turnip is a root vegetable and the kohlrabi is a tuber.

harvest words rutabaga

Invoking a linguistic history similar to that of kohlrabi, the rutabaga originated as the result of crossing a cabbage and a turnip. The word, however, derives from the Swedish words for “root” and “bag” (the latter suggesting the short, stumpy shape of the root). The rutabaga can also be known in the U.S. as a Swedish turnip or Swede.

harvest words cauliflower

The cauliflower is another cabbage relative that indicates such in its name. In Italian the cauliflower is known as cavolfiore. Once again the Italian cavalo (“cabbage”) provides the first half of the word, along with fiore (“flower”), alluding to the white undeveloped flowers on its head.

harvest words squash

The vegetable known as squash shares a homonym with both the name of a racquet sport and a verb meaning “to crush, flatten, or suppress.” Neither relates etymologically to the New World gourd, whose name derives from the Narragansett word askutasquash.

harvest words pumpkin

Pumpkin is an alteration of an earlier word, pumpion, which can be traced ultimately to the Greek adjective pepon, meaning “ripened.” The English word pepo refers to the fruit of a gourd plant (a vine that encompasses pumpkins, squashes, cucumbers, and melons).

The seasonal flavoring known as pumpkin spice does not, in spite of its name, contain pumpkin. It’s a spice mix that generally contains those spices and herbs used in making pumpkin pie (such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and allspice).

harvest words broccoli

The green vegetable that we know as broccoli—the one that President George H. W. Bush hated—is native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor and found its way to the colonial-era United States. Broccoli is the plural of the Italian broccolo, meaning “flowering top of a cabbage,” the diminutive form of brocco, meaning “small nail, sprout.”

So does that make Broccolini a diminutive of a diminutive? Not exactly. That word, referring to a hybrid of broccoli and Chinese broccoli that has long, thin stems and yellow florets, was coined as a trademark.


Although they are native to the Mediterranean region, Brussels sprouts are believed to have been grown in and around Belgium as early as 1200, which might explain their connection to the city of Brussels.

Related to the cabbage and cauliflower, the Brussels sprout plant is cultivated for its edible small roundish green buds, which grow on its stem and resemble miniature cabbages.

harvest words parsnip

The parsnip is a relative of the carrot family with a whitish root. Its names derives from a Latin noun, pastinaca, which means “parsnip” or “carrot” and is related to pastinum, the name of a small gardening tool used to make holes in the ground for the insertion of plants, seeds, or bulbs. The fact that the name parsnip shares its last three letters with that of another edible root, turnip, may be due to the Middle English spelling of parsnip (passenep) having been influenced by nepe, the old form of turnip.

harvest words yam

The edible tuber known as the yam often gets conflated with the sweet potato, the plant of which belongs to the morning-glory family. The tuberous root called the yam belongs to plants of the genus Dioscorea and grows mainly in tropical regions.

The label yam (deriving from Portuguese inhame & Spanish ñame) is sometimes mistakenly applied to what is actually a sweet potato, which has tapered ends and flesh of varying color.

Weeks and weeks ago our fresh provisions were all exhausted. There is not a sweet potato left; not a single yam.
— Herman Melville, Typee, 1846

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