We just got our copy of the latest New Yorker, whose cover is a vivid image of a woman eating a slice of watermelon; you can see it, as well as read a brief interview about it with the artist, Olimpia Zagnoli, here. What struck me most was the title, “Cocomero,” which turns out to be an Italian word (stress on the second syllable: /koˈ meaning ‘watermelon.’ Questions that arose which I could not answer: why is the title in Italian, and why is the meaning not mentioned either in the magazine or in the interview? A question that I could answer, thanks to the Wiktionary article linked above: what is the etymology? It turns out to be from Latin cucumis ‘cucumber.’ Apparently in northern Italian regional usage, it still means ‘cucumber,’ but for some reason in the standard language it switched to the much larger fruit. But what drove me to post is the etymology given for that Latin word:

A wanderwort likely ultimately from Sumerian 𒄾 (ukuš₂, “cucumber”) or an unidentified pre-Indo-European Mediterranean substrate language; see Arabic قِثَّاء‎ (qiṯṯāʔ, “snake melon”).

Much as I love Sumerian etyma, is that anything more than a wild guess? (We discussed Italian words for ‘watermelon’ back in 2016.)


  1. Rasmus Underbjerg Pinnerup says

    The Akkadian is 𒄾 /qiššû/ ‘cucumber’. For this to be related to the Arabic given above, the older form has to have had an interdental fricative ([θ]) like in the Arabic word.

    This means that the Sumerian 𒄾 /ukuš₂/, if related, would have to be a loan *from* Akkadian, rather than the etymon of the Akkadian word (not improbable, there are many such). However, this then would rule out the Sumerian word being the etymon of the Greek and Latin words in the same complex, given that there is hardly any thinkable route that these could have got a word from Sumerian without it going through Akkadian (and Aramaic or Phoenician).

  2. SED has Proto-Semitic *ḳVṯ(ṯ)Vˀ ‘a plant belonging to cucurbits’, with reflexes in Akkadian, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and Geʽez (the form given for the latter looks like a plural.) I don’t know enough to make sense of the mismatched vowels.

    Cocomero and other cucurbits came up (as they do) here (ed.: oops! you already mentioned it) and here. They always refresh.

  3. Kukumar is also ‘cucumber’ in my south Dalmatian dialect of Croatian. The ‘proper’ Croatian word is “krastavac” derived from “krasta” (wart) ie. from warty protuberances on a cucumber.

    In general we have more dialectal variety in Croatisn when it comes to fruit & veg. Dare i say, more so than in English.

    In English, there is:
    Australian capsicum v US pepper
    Aust. eggplant v UK aubergine
    Aust. rockmelon v US cantelope

    In Croatian, eg:
    Kapula v luk
    Dinja v lubenica
    Pomidora v rajčica
    Luk v češnjak
    Kukumar v krastavac

  4. Dare i say, more so than in English.

    That I very much doubt. English has acquired vocabulary from all over its former possessions.

    Aust. eggplant v UK aubergine

    Go to any veggie market in UK. See how many words you can hear for aubergine. Indeed in Leeds market was a stall (outside the formal covered area, down the back to the right) selling several varieties, the vendor’s catch-cry was to reel off about a dozen names. Incl brinjal/brown-jolly, bangan/baigan, melanzāna (with several variations), …

    I’m pretty sure you’d get the same experience in Melbourne market. (Probably also Sydney, but I don’t know its markets so well.) So I think restricting yourself to Australian supermarket shelves is not a good measure of ‘English’.

  5. In Korandje, IIRC, axsim is both (a type of) “melon” and “cucumber”. The word derives, via Berber a-ɣǝssim and Punic *qiššū’-īm, from this same proto-Semitic root. If the Latin form is connected, I assume the m would also reflect a Semitic plural ending; but I don’t see why Latin would have borrowed a sibilant (let alone a dental fricative) as /k/.

  6. Klein, A comprehensive etymological dictionary of the English language :

    Sicyos, n., a genus of plants, the one-seeded bur cucumber (bot.) — ModL., fr. Gk. σίκυος, ‘cucumber’, which according to Paul de Lagarde (in Armenische Studien. § 1975, and in Mitteilungen, I, 234 and II, 356) is borrowed fr. Heb. *qishshu’ā́ʰ (pl. qishshu’ī́m), ‘cucumber’. See Heinrich Lewy, Die semitischen Fremdwörter im Griechischen, Berlin, 1895, p. 30. For the equivalents of Heb. qishshu’ī́m in the other Sem. languages see Gesenius-Buhl, HWAT, p. 731. cp. cucumber.

    For the latter, Klein says,

    […] fr. L. cucumerem, acc. of cucumis, ‘cucumber’, fr. Gk. κίκυος, assimilated fr. σίκυος, ‘cucumber’, a collateral form of σικύη, of [same meaning], which was prob. formed through metathesis fr. Heb. qishshu’ā́ʰ, ‘cucumber’.

    Which doesn’t explain the Latin m.

  7. Luk v češnjak

    wiktionary is telling me those two mean possibly-different veggies. Specifically češnjak is bijeli lȕk, where lȕk is a more general term; (possibly) cognate with English leek. Then English garlic = O.E. gārlēac = spear-leek, “in reference to its sharp, tapering leaves” [wikt]. (bijeli is recognisably Slavic ‘white’.)

    Proto-Slavic česnъ from Proto-Indo-European *kesn-o-, likely from a non-Indo-European (substrate) source. Cognate with Irish cainneann (“leek”), Welsh cennin (“leek”).
    + diminutive suffix

    English plain ‘leek’ nowadays is neither garlic nor onion. (It used to be more general, but got pushed aside by the Latinate word.) ‘Onion’ is nowadays the general term; unqualified meaning brown onion, but also covers spring onion, red onion, white onion, pickling onion, chives, garlic-chives, … The Hattery has done alliums/ramps at length, building on LLog at more length.

    No shortage of variation, some dialectical, some regional/country-specific, some historical.

    wrt Croatian, I see there’s quite a bit of controversy:

    The opinion of the majority of Croatian linguists[citation needed] is that there has never been a Serbo-Croatian language, but two different standard languages that overlapped sometime in the course of history.
    [wp — which goes on to dispute this claim of ‘majority’]

    Then is this comparable to the position in English?: which has for much vocabulary two competing terms, one Germanic, one Latinate. It’s not as straightforward as one being mainstream, the other ‘dialect’. As with leek/garlic/onion. Or sheep/mutton. Or dog/hound/canine.

  8. The Korean melon or the oriental melon (Cucumis melo var. makuwa), a less sweet variety of melon, is called 참외 chamoe in Korean, or the “true oe“. The cucumber is called 오이 oi, and 외 oe is a contraction of this. There are dialects where the Korean melon is called 외 oe or 애 ae while the cucumber is called 물외 muroe or 물오이 muroi (“water oe/oi). So oe or oi is originally the undifferentiated name for both the Korean melon and the cucumber, and these are distinguished by calling the former the “true” variety as in Standard Korean or the latter the “water” variety as in some dialects.

  9. @Ant C

    Re aubergine:
    Just to make it clear, are you saying that bangan and all those other names you mentioned are alternative names for “aubergine” or are they names of different varieties of aubergine?
    In Australia, we only use “eggplant” for the vegetable.

    Re češnjak:

    Češnjak is the proper word (ie. standard Croatian) in Croatian for “garlic”. In my dialect (souther Dalmatia), we instead use the word “luk”, which in the Croatian standard is used for “onion”.

    Bijeli luk (white “luk”) is a synonym for “češnjak”. But if unqualified by an adjective, esp. in recipees, “luk” is an onion.

    Re: Variety in English:
    It makes sense that English, a language spoken by some 500 hundred times more people than Croatisn would have a great variety of words for fruit & veg, but Croatian strikes me as very rich in this regard. Maybe even more so than English.

    I can only think of one similar situation in English where there are multiple meanings:
    “Corn” means wheat in UK, but it means maize in Australia & US.
    [Happy to be reminded if there are others.]

    Re leek:
    I didn’t know that “leek” meant anything other than leek (accepting that historically it may have referred to other Allium spp.). Where does it also mean “onion”? Or are you only saying it’s cognate with “luk”.

  10. Keith Ivey says

    Brown onions are called yellow onions in the US, at least in my experience.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    Brown onions are called yellow onions in the US, at least in my experience.

    I remember yellow onions from Texas – infirm, with a semi-transparent thin skin – and firmer white ones.

    I haven’t seen yellow-colored onions in Cologne, where we have most-firm smallish brown onions – the skin being brown and not transparent – and of course purple ones (that people insist on calling “red” ) etc.

    Do these brown and yellow onions have the same taste and affinities ? Certainly the red and brown ones don’t. The thinly sliced red ones are best on top of fagioli salad, doused in olive oil and optionally a dash of “balsamico”.

  12. Keith Ivey says

    Wikipedia has “yellow onion” for the article name, but gives “brown onion” first in the intro.

  13. To your first question, “why is the title in Italian,” it would seem that’s simply because the artist “is based in Milan” according to the interview you linked.

  14. The word onion prototypically means either a white or a yellow onion (to use the colors by which they are known in America; there is no meaningful difference between the standard yellow and white cultivars in terms of flavor, so scarce need to distinguish between them in recipes or shopping lists). However, even without any further qualification, onion can mean a red or purple onion (and while most onions that get referred to as “red” are really purple varieties, there are authentically red ones too). If I order a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion at a sit-down restaurant, I would expect the onions to most likely be purple. (On the other hand, if I ordered with grilled onions, they would almost certainly be yellow or white.)

  15. To your first question, “why is the title in Italian,” it would seem that’s simply because the artist “is based in Milan” according to the interview you linked.

    Of course I understand that the artist is based in Milan, but I am unaware of any rule that says that a cover painting is titled in the native language of the artist. If they had used a Ukrainian artist, would the cover have been called кавун? It seems pointless and unhelpful exoticism.

  16. Keith Ivey says

    If not red/purple, the raw onion on a hamburger might well be Vidalia (sweet), which is hard to distinguish from yellow except that they’re often more oblate.

  17. Giacomo Ponzetto says


    are you saying that bangan and all those other names you mentioned are alternative names for “aubergine” or are they names of different varieties of aubergine?

    The OED, to the extent I can handle its baffling new website, offers the following alternative English names.

    Eggplant. “A popular name for the Solanum esculentum, originally given to the white-fruited variety, but afterwards extended to that which bears the purple fruit or Aubergine.” Frequency: 1 per million words in 2010 written English.

    Aubergine. “The fruit of the Eggplant, Solanum esculentum, resembling a goose’s egg in size and shape, and usually of purple colour; also called brinjal.” Freq. 0.19.

    Brinjal. “The Anglo-Indian name of the fruit of the Eggplant (Solanum melongena).” Freq. 0.06.

    Garden egg.Jamaican and West African. The fruit of the eggplant or aubergine, Solanum melongena; cf. vegetable egg.” Freq. 0.007.

    Egg-fruit. “The fruit of the eggplant.” Freq. 0.002.

    Melongene. “In the Caribbean: the aubergine or eggplant, Solanum melongena; the fruit of this plant.” Freq. 0.001.

    Brown jolly. “West-Indian corruption of brinjal.” Freq. N/A

    Jew’s apple. “The fruit of the eggplant or aubergine, Solanum melongena; the plant itself.” Freq. N/A.

    All other options are marked as obsolete, or in the case of mad-apple merely archaic but still with a contemporary frequency of 0.

    Conversely, baingan/baigan seems to remain Hindi or Urdu rather than English, but I understand such distinctions are not clear-cut given a sufficiently large number of bilingual speakers.

  18. FWIW, Olimpia Zagnoli’s 2019 New Yorker cover images had titles in English.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    *kõ̀m-ɹɪ ‘Solanum aethiopicum’ in proto-Oti-Volta.

    (Farefare kṍnnɛ́, Buli kōmī, Nawdm kòmŕ, Moba kànǹ, Mbelime kàǹdè.)

  20. The 2016 post on Italian dialects has a comment linking to this paper, on coastal Croatian words for cucurbits.

  21. @zyxt Just to make it clear, are you saying that bangan and all those other names you mentioned are alternative names for “aubergine” or are they names of different varieties of aubergine?
    In Australia, we only use “eggplant” for the vegetable.

    Thank you to Giacomo for the analysis. I’m in NZ. I don’t think it’ll be dramatically different to Aus. — or at least certain parts of Aus. (Perhaps you’re in the cultural deserts of North Sydney?) Your last sentence I simply don’t believe.

    I suggest you check the menus of some of your local Indian takeaways. The nearest to me advertises ‘Baigan Bharta’, explained as eggplant … . The next nearest uses ‘Aloo Brinjal’, explained as aubergine … (That difference probably comes from the chef’s differing route of migration.)

    They all mean the same veggie for Indian-takeaway purposes. You can also in the shops get those long, thin, twisted, more-white-than-purple varieties. Those have other names, but the English tends to be ‘long aubergine’.

    And I’m in Christchurch, not known for its cultural diversity. The veggie markets in South Auckland will have much more variety. (And in UK even more so.)

    Second Indian menu I googled in Sydney CBD has ‘Brinjal’. The SMH has a review of a restaurant named ‘Aubergine’.

  22. @Giacomo/OED Brown jolly. “West-Indian corruption of brinjal.” Freq. N/A

    Thanks, that from me was specific to Leeds market. There’s a large Caribbean (are we still allowed to say “West-Indian”?) community in Chapeltown suburb.

    To be clear for @zyxt: I’m not denying the most common usage in Aus. is ‘eggplant’. Probably that restaurant is named ‘Aubergine’ to sound classy. (It seems to have gone out of business.) ‘Eggplant’ is also probably the more common in N.Z. — although to the extent the vocab differs, NZ prefers the Brit name, which at least used to be ‘aubergine’.

    And I’m not claiming white Aus/NZers would use ‘brinjal’ or ‘baigan’ outside of an Indian dining context; but they would recognise those words.

  23. cuchuflete says

    For what it may be worth, Wiktionary offers this etymology for the common Spanish word for eggplant:



    Borrowed from Arabic بَاذِنْجَان‎ (bāḏinjān), from Persian بادنجان‎ (bâdenjân). Compare Portuguese beringela.

  24. Keith Ivey says

    Are Indian restaurant menus really relevant? Does “aloo” count as an English word for potato, or “saag” for spinach? Or “pomodoro” for tomato or “camarones” for shrimp?

  25. berenjena

    Hehe and in Sydney there’s a sound-alike ‘Barrenjoey Heads’, known for its light-house that looks like an eggplant.

    The Arabic is also the proximate source of ‘aubergine’ having attached the article ‘al-bāḏinjān’. The Arabic ultimately from Sanskrit; so all these `b … j …` words are cognate. ‘Melanzana’ (Italian) too — via several corruptions.

  26. Keith Ivey says

    I’m always imagining there was a Polyglot Vegetarian post about the eggplant names and then finding it doesn’t exist.

  27. David Marjanović says

    ‘Melanzana’ (Italian)

    Austrian, too (Melanzani, misunderstanding of the plural melanzane).

  28. @AntC

    Thanks. Interesting to learn the synonyms. I really like “garden egg”.

    I’ve never heard of “brinjan” or “baigan”, but then again I’m not one to frequent Indian restaurants.

    I suppose in Croatia, there are synonyms for fruit & veg that are used by the general population as everyday words and in shops & markets. There is a lot of variation in a country that you can drive across in 1 day.

  29. Words for ‘eggplant’ at LH, in lieu of Polyglot Vegetarian.

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    I really like “garden egg”

    I think (but am not certain) that “garden egg” is an Anglophone West-Africanism, and thus properly refers to Solanum aethiopicum. (My dictionaries regularly say of it “typically eaten raw.” Not tempted ,..)

    [Just found Waama kancenfa ‘une plante (espèce d’aubergine qu’on mange comme légume)’, where the kan bit is presumably from the proto-Oti-Volta Solanum aethiopicum root, and the cenfa must be the same stem as in cinde ‘egg.’]

  31. Keith Ivey says

    Words for ‘eggplant’ at LH

    Thanks. That’s probably what I was remembering.

  32. @Keith Are Indian restaurant menus really relevant? …

    Fair question. To which I think the answer is ‘it depends’ … on when, where, and which Anglo- sub-community we’re talking about. It’s a food so where else you gonna see it? Is ‘aubergine’ on a menu relevant?

    Time was I wouldn’t have counted ‘aubergine’ as English. Chiefly on account of you could never find the things in Blighty [**], but only on holiday in France.

    I still count ‘eggplant’ as an imposter Americanism.

    But OED will know better than my anecdata. They say yes to Brinjal; not so much to Baigan [***]. I’d be interested on their take with ‘aloo’. I think I remember it appearing in Vanity Fair 1848 — particularly when Dobbin returns from the colonies and craves for his ‘aloos’. Hmm Project Gutenberg is rebuffing me. I can find curry (also appears in Tristram Shandy); I can find pilaus. Do you want to reject those from English? Am I remembering some other novel? None of those words appear in A Passage to India — bizarre.

    [**] My favourite Indian restaurant (West London suburbs, 1970’s) had Brinjal Bhaji on the menu. The head waiter (actually only waiter) was always telling me how good it was/the chef’s speciality. So I always asked after it as soon as I arrived. Oh, I’ll just go and check in the kitchen, sir … (cue Cheese Shop sketch) … unfortunately we’ve just run out. So you had it last week? You promised you’d give me a ring when you had some. … Non-committal reply. And no I wouldn’t have counted ‘brinjal’ as English back then.

    [***] ‘Baigan’ is more common on the menus of eateries in NZ. Reflects that the Indians here are mostly refugees from Fiji’s racist policies (which have continued after the coup).

  33. I’m not sure Victorian English and Anglo-Indian would have much need for aloo, as potatoes were familiar enough in English cuisine. So, Vwyer’s just uses that or pommes de terre. Whereas it was Brinjals or aubergines.

    So too the headwords in the modern A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food.

  34. PlasticPaddy says

    The entry for brinjal in Hobson-Jobson is very interesting (sorry if already on other thread).

  35. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Davidson’s (1999, 2nd ed. 2006) Oxford Companion to Food offers the following.

    Aubergine or eggplant (the name used in N. America), Solanum melongena, botanically a fruit but usually counted as a vegetable.
    … The Arabic name produced the usual modern Indian name brinjal.
    … In Australia it may be eggfruit, and in W. Africa it is often called garden egg.
    … In the W. Indies it bears the name ‘brown jolly’, presumably a corruption of brinjal, due to Indian immigrants.
    … Facciola (1990), writing of the related S. aethiopicum, the African scarlet eggplant or garden egg, states that the orange-red fruits are cooked and eaten like aubergines.

    The list is a little shorter than in the OED, but well aligned with it.

    It also supports David Eddyshaw’s intuition about “garden egg.” I suppose that in West Africa S. aethiopicum is the garden egg proper and S. melongena also a kind of garden egg, just as in Southern Europe S. melongena is the eggplant proper, and S. aethiopicum also a kind of eggplant (It. melanzana rossa).

  36. I have no connections at all to South Asia, but a lot of my favorite recipe bloggers are Indian and they regularly talk about chopping the “brinjal/s.” Whereas “aloo” or “saag” tend to only turn up in the names of the dishes.

  37. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I used to think that eggplant was one of those weird americanisms until I saw a display of eggplants at the grocer’s that looked exactly like eggs. (Well, apart from the little stems). But there is no Danish calque, so we make do with åbersjine /ɒber’sjine/ [ɒb̥ɐˈɕiˑn̩]. (And no, Dansk Sprognævn haven’t tried to make that spelling official, not after majonæse, but it would be the most obvious nativized one).

    I didn’t manage to buy any fresh mulberries this year, but I did find a shop that should have them in season. Next ambition: breadfruit. I’ve been fascinated by that name since I was a boy. (Aren’t they in Robinson Crusoe?) TIL that they are in the mulberry family along with jackfruit (which the local asian markets do carry canned and I might actually have some in the cupboard that I never got around to trying).

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    I suppose that in West Africa S. aethiopicum is the garden egg proper and S. melongena also a kind of garden egg

    I think so. The Mooré dictionary actually gives nasaar-kʋmbre ‘kind of eggplant’, where the first element is ‘European’, and the second is the Oti-Volta garden-egg word. Mind you, it identifies it as Parkinsonia aculeata, which seems to be something quite different, originally from the Americas.

    Looking it up on WP, I made the pleasing discovery that Australia has “Weeds of National Significance.” Parkinsonia aculeata seems to be Top Weed.

  39. When I first looked up cocomero in a dictionary, having heard it in a song for children (“Il cocomero tondo, tondo // Che voleva essere il più forte del mondo…”), it turned out that standard Italian also has anguria and melone di acqua for “watermelon.” Also, there are half a dozen synonyms in Italian dialects, like cetrone, sindria and pastecca.

  40. Keith Ivey says

    Sindria, like Spanish sandía, is from Arabic from Sanskrit meaning “of Sindh”.

  41. John Cowan says

    Are Indian restaurant menus really relevant? Does “aloo” count as an English word for potato, or “saag” for spinach?

    They do if Indian anglophones use them in other contexts. The OED entry for saag says ‘Any of various edible leafy green vegetables, typically spinach. Also: an Indian dish made with spinach or (occasionally) another green vegetable.’

  42. I wouldn’t use aloo as a word for just “potatoes,” but I have used it on its own to refer to potato dishes cooked in a specifically Indian style. For example, an exchange like this,

    Where do you want to go for lunch?
    I’m kind of feeling like aloo. Let’s go to the Bombay Club.

    sounds unremarkable.

  43. Yes, that works for me as well.

  44. Published during William’s reign, so pre-Victorian, Herklots’s translation of Qanoon-e-Islam has an Appendix, “Moosulman Cookery.” Interesting to see what gets glossed botanically then.

    (I got there from a reference to curry of “Bandakí” in one of Dirty Dick Burton’s Nights footnotes, this one on okra.)

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