It’s an oft-asked question, so let’s take a stroll through the vegetable patch while dueting on “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” and see if we can’t make some sense out of what’s growing in the soil.
Note: Some of the following are classified as fruits, but in the interests of not getting bogged down in technicalities, we’re using the term “vegetables” for foodstuffs that are generally considered vegetables for culinary purposes.
Courgette vs. zucchini
All members of the Cucurbita pepo family (better known as “squash” to you and me) are native to Central and South America where they were cultivated for thousands of years before European colonization. The plant eventually found its way to Europe sometime around the end of the 15th century where it became “zucchini” in Italy and “courgette” in France. Between 1880-1920, a great surge of Italian immigrants (more than four million of them) came to start a new life in America, bringing their zucchini with them. Because “zucchini” was easy for non-Italian speakers to say, nobody tried to Anglicize it, and the name stuck. Meanwhile, the courgette is a relatively modern food phenomenon in Britain. In fact, there’s no record of it existing in the United Kingdom prior to the 1930s. “Courgette” is, of course, a French loanword and first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1931.
Aubergine vs. eggplant
The Solanum melongena plant is native to the Indian subcontinent and first appeared in England in the late 1500s. The word “aubergine” is once again borrowed from the French. (The Germans adopted it too; the Brits aren’t the only ones with no imagination.) If you were to ask for aubergine in a U.S. restaurant, it would be like asking the waiter for a portion of purple or an appetizer of indigo as aubergine, in America, is a shade of violet. The U.S. term “eggplant” dates from the middle of the 18th century and is named after the white and yellow versions of the vegetable, which as whoever coined the word noted, resemble goose eggs.
Mange tout vs. snow pea
Another British steal from the French, “mange tout” (sometimes “mangetout”) literally translates as “eat all” in reference to the peas’ edible pods. In the U.K., the term applies to both snow peas and snap peas.
Rocket vs. arugula
Both of these words share a common ancestor, the Latin eruca, a plant species native to the Mediterranean region. This leafy green was enjoyed by the Romans and originally known in Italian as ruchetta. After making its way over the Alps in the 16th century, ruchetta arrived in France where it became roquette. Somewhere across the English Channel the “qu” was thrown overboard and replaced with the more Anglican sounding “ck,” while the feminine suffix “-ette” was later shortened to “-et.” Today the standard Italian word for arugula is rucola. Like zucchini, Italian immigrants brought the term with them to America where it eventually evolved into “arugula.”
Swede vs. rutabaga
So this one’s pretty confusing and may just fry our brains while quite possibly leaving us none the wiser. Put simply and ungracefully, the rutabaga is the bastard child of cabbage and turnip. This natural crossbreeding was first identified in 1935 by a Japanese agricultural scientist named Woo Jang-choon, who wrote a much-revered paper on the topic introducing a theory that stands up to this day called “The Triangle of U.” But I digress. The vegetable in question first appeared in print in 1620 when a Swiss botanist named Gaspard Bauhin noted it was growing wild in Sweden. Hence, “Swedish turnip” or simply “swede.” The U.S. term “rutabaga” comes from the old Swedish word Rotabagge meaning “root ram.” Confusion arises because, although most varieties of turnip are white-fleshed and most varieties of rutabaga are yellow-fleshed, there are also white-fleshed rutabagas and yellow-fleshed turnips. Does anyone else’s head hurt?
Spring onion vs. scallion
Game for some more confusion? Splendid. Scallions are often incorrectly referred to as “green onions” in the U.S. but also hide out under other aliases such as “Welsh onion” and “Japanese bunching onion.” A true scallion has a long, skinny green stalk and a white tip that doesn’t grow a bulb. A green onion looks very similar to a scallion, but has a very slender hint of a bulb, and spring onions have slightly rounded bulbs and the sharpest taste of all three. In the U.K., “spring onion” is the most common term (except the Northern Irish prefer “scallion”), but other names such as “salad onion” and “green shallot” are also used as interchangeable terms for any vegetable that resembles a spring onion. The words “scallion” and “shallot” originate from the ancient Philistine city Ashkelon, whose Latin name was Ascalonia and was where people in classical Greece believed this particular type of vegetable originated.
Beetroot vs. Beets
“Beetroot” comes from its Latin name Beta vulgaris. It’s known in the U.S. simply as “beets” because Americans are busier than Brits and don’t have time for a second syllable.