The Grammarphobia Blog

Sufferin’ succotash!

Q: Your posting about the difference between “quash” and “squash” raises another question: Is there a connection between the “squash” that means to crush and the “squash” that you eat?

A: This question came up recently during one of Pat’s appearances on Iowa Public Radio. The caller wondered what the two words had to do with each other.

The answer is nothing. The two “squashes” aren’t even remotely related.

As we wrote in that earlier post, the verb “squash” (to crush) ultimately comes from exquassare, a popular Latin derivative of quassare, one of the ancestors of “quash.”

When the verb entered English in the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant to “squeeze, press, or crush into a flat mass or pulp; to beat to, or dash in, pieces, etc.”

But the “squash” that’s a gourd—the British would call it a “marrow”—is a short form of asquutasquash, a word in Narragansett, an Algonquian language spoken by native Americans in Rhode Island.

In the word asquutasquash, the OED explains, asq means “raw, uncooked,” and “-ash is a plural ending, as in succotash.”

Roger Williams, who is generally accepted as the founder of Rhode Island colony, was the first person to use this “squash” in writing.

The OED’s earliest citation is from A Key Into the Language of America (1643), Williams’s study of native American languages:

“Askutasquash, their Vine aples, which the English from them call Squashes, about the bignesse of Apples, of severall colours, sweet, light, wholesome, refreshing.”

To some early settlers, the Narragansett word asquutasquash sounded like “squanter-squash,” and that was an early name for the gourd, first recorded in 1634. It’s no longer used; the OED calls it obsolete and rare.

Now how’s this for confusing? The word “quash” was also sometimes used to mean a squash or pumpkin

The OED says that some examples of this usage “may be based on misunderstanding by early naturalists, others may represent misreadings of manuscripts by later editors.” OK, now let’s forget all about it.

One more thing. We probably shouldn’t let that fleeting reference to “succotash” pass without an explanation. After all, we’ve recently celebrated Thanksgiving and food, as well as our country’s Native American heritage, has been on everybody’s mind.

“Succotash” too is derived from a Narragansett word, msiquatash, a plural with “divergent explanations,” the OED says.

We do know what “succotash” meant to colonists in 18th-century New England. The OED defines the English word as “a dish of North American Indian origin, usually consisting of green maize and beans boiled together.”

Oxford’s earliest example of its use in writing comes from a letter written in 1751 by James MacSparran, a Church of England clergyman in early America:

“Mor dined with us upon Suckatash and Ham.” (The superscript “r” probably indicates that first word was an abbreviation.)

This later example is more redolent of the wilderness. It’s from Jonathan Carver’s Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America (1778):

“This [dish] is composed of their unripe corn … and beans in the same state, boiled together with bears flesh. … They call this food Succatosh.”

And here’s a literary example, from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826): “The wise Huron is welcome … he is come to eat his ‘suc-ca-tush’ with his brothers of the lakes!”

We’ll conclude with an example from Sylvester the Cat: “Sufferin’ succotash!”

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