Between muscles and mussels: an old linguistic diatribe

by Claudia Grillo

Among the many Italian riches, linguistic ones cannot be missing, also related to mussels, which in Bacoli are a millenary excellence. The variety of our dialects is, in fact, a rare and precious characteristic that it is important to know and preserve. Thanks to this wealth, it happens to move around the peninsula and hear the same object mentioned in the most varied ways.

Italian and its geosinonyms

Have you ever thought about how many terms exist in Italian to define even a very simple object like the hanger for hanging clothes in the wardrobe? crutch is a term now commonly used throughout Italy, but before it became so widely used it was only used in the Tuscan area. Next to crutch we also use another very common term: crutch, now used everywhere but of Roman origin. Then there are linguistic forms that are more particular and less felt like hanger, cross e cross used in southern Italy e coat hangers, ormino e little man, in the north.

It often happens that, by dint of talking and talking, some of these geosinonyms prevail over others and assert themselves as common forms. Let's think, for example, of the word Tuscan toy which today sounds rather archaic and obsolete, having been almost completely replaced by the Venetian toy.

Tra muscoli e cozze: una vecchia diatriba linguistica
A mussel soup

Mussels and not only mussels

Another case of this type is the word mussel, used today throughout Italy to define a particular type of sea mollusk, very good "bubbled" (grant me the term) of pepper, but until the early 1900s used only in the Neapolitan area. But let's take a few steps back.

The term mussel comes from the Latin COCHLEAM which means snail, snail shell, evidently in reference to the shell of the molluscs. An ancient and particular attestation of the term in the form cocceche (which will later become mussels) we find it in the note of a Neapolitan commentator placed on the edge of the Chiose Philippines, a manuscript that reports the Divine Comedy of Dante. The commentator reads the word Florentine in the text scoffs and, not recognizing it as a form of his own language, translates it into Neapolitan cocceche. To deepen the question, I refer you to the accurate article by Beatrice Morra: The Divine Comedy in Naples: when Dante "held 'e cozzeche"

Mussels, mussels and peoci

C.ozze it is not, therefore, the only way to define our molluscs and it is not even the scientific way. The technical term is, in fact, mussel from the Latin MITULUM, already used by the Romans to define some types of molluscs. In his Satires, for example, Horace writes that mussels, next to a nice glass of white wine from the island of Kos, are an excellent laxative (Hor. Sat. 2.4). Gladly glossing over the effectiveness of the treatment, we return to more modern times and, traveling around the various Italian regions, we will not hear mussels neither mussels. In Veneto, in fact, we will hear peoci (which in the Venetian dialect also means "lice"), in the Marche we will hear mòscioli and in Liguria muscles.

The luck of the muscles

The term muscle, in particular, it is very interesting because it is attested in a fairly large area of central Italy (especially Tuscany) and north-western Italy since the 16th century. Muscle it derives, for a change, from the Latin MUSCULUM and numerous European languages have drawn from this form. Let's think of French moules, in German Muscheln and English mussles.

Even Fabrizio De André could not resist not mentioning the muscles in what is, perhaps, the most extraordinary musical experiment of the great Ligurian singer-songwriter: the album Crêuza de mä, with his songs written in a very musical and almost exotic Genoese dialect. Right in the song that gives the album its name, Crêuza de mä, in the end it is no longer De André who sings, but the fish market of Genoa with its powerful voices and its noises. At a certain point a male voice intervenes, it is a mussel fisherman who in Ligurian dialect shouts in an open voice: "arselline, local muscles, the Spanish muscles do not take them because they are soft!"

Muscles o mussels?

From the early 1900s the term mussel however, it has definitely taken over the other geosinonyms, to the point of establishing itself as the most common Italian term. The why is difficult to define and it is a question that we leave to linguists, but, in the end, that you want to call it muscles o mussels, the important thing is never to eat them in the months with the "r", as the grandmothers recommend, and that they remain without any doubt among the most delicious dishes of Italian tables.

Claudia Grillo

Bibliography and sitography:

Paolo D'Achille, Contemporary Italian, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2010

Manlio Cortellazzo, Carla Marcato, Etymological dictionary of Italian dialects, Turin, Utet, 2017

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