The Impact of Two Latin Words for Celery

When I was in elementary school, my Mom would drag me to to church on most Sunday mornings for the 8 o’clock mass. Invariably, I would try to listen to what the priest said for the first five minutes. But he spoke Italian too quickly, and it was different enough from the dialect that we spoke at home that I could not follow the mass for very long. So I let my mind wander, admired the stained glass and stared at the mediocre murals on the walls.

About a half century later, my wife and I only attend mass when people we know have died. Yesterday was such a day. My comprehension of Italian has improved dramatically, but I still chose not to listen to the priest for very long and to distract myself with thoughts of my deceased aunt, math and science until a heartfelt eulogy was delivered by my cousin’s husband.

Perhaps inspired by the subsequent get-together with my Italian relatives and acquaintances, I woke up this morning wondering why there are different words for celery in Italian and in its various dialects. It’s rooted in the fact that when people spoke Latin at the time of the Roman Empire, even then, there was more than one word for celery.

Umbelliferae
The inflorescence of a fennel plant similar in shape to that of the carrot, parsley and celery.

Both parsley and celery, along with carrots, poison hemlock and about 3700 other species,  are members of the Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae) family.  It’s not a coincidence that “Umbelliferae” sounds like umbrella. All plants of this family have an inflorescence that is shaped like an upside down umbrella. Structural similarities between flowers of plants are not coincidences. If a genetic analysis is done, almost invariably, when structures in plants resemble each other, so do overall genetic sequences.

It’s therefore not a shock that when vernacular Latin adopted a word for celery, they derived it from the Greek word for parsley, selinon, and called celery, selinum. This eventually evolved into the currently accepted Italian word sedano. But selinum also morphed into another word, sellaro, still used today by people who speak dialect in villages of Lombardy. Sellaro, as you have probably guessed, became the French word, céleri and the English word, celery. 

More formal Latin, however, used the word appium for celery, hence the family name Apiaceae. This led to another accepted term for celery, appio dolce.  But the consonant p of either appium or appio changed to a c, forming the word accio or acc’ for celery that most dialects of Campania use. Such a transformation is not uncommon. A switch of a p to a c also occurred when “che io sappio” (as far as I know) became “chi sacc?” (who knows?) in Napolitano.

I wish priests would find a way of blending etymology and botany with spirituality. I would attend every Sunday.

 

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