Q&A: Quash vs squash

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're awash with squash, by gosh!

Q: Hi AWC, do you know what I’ve been obsessing about lately?

A: Climate change? Refugees? The lesser-known letters of the Greek alphabet?

Q: Um, no. I’ve been really getting into the refreshing taste of lemon squash.

A: Oh, okay. We were close.

Q: But it got me thinking.

A: About how “lemon” is an anagram of “melon”?

Q: No.

A: About how lemons are technically berries?

Q: Also no. It was about the word “squash”.

A: Oh, okay. Again, similar.

Q: In particular, what is the difference between the words “squash” and “quash”? I assume they come from the same place?

A: You’re right, they do. Well, one and a half of them do.

Q: Huh?

A: Hmmm, okay, the easiest way might be to go back to early Latin, where we find two words. The first is “cassare” – meaning “to nullify, cancel or make void”.

Q: Wow, they had “cancel culture” even back then!

A: Indeed. Anyway, at the same time, we had a completely separate word “quassare” – meaning “to shatter, shake or toss violently”.

Q: Okay. Then what?

A: Fast forward to the 1200s, and the original word “cassare” evolves to become a new Medieval Latin word, “quassare” – keeping the original “nullify” meaning. The French were in charge of Britain during this time thanks to the Norman invasion of 1066, so that gave us Old French “quasser” and the English word “quashen” – again, meaning “to nullify or void”.

Q: Just one question. Who was Norman?

A: Ignoring that. Anyway, along comes the 1300s and everyone remembers that oops, “quassare” had already been a Latin word from back in the day.

Q: The violent shaky shatter one?

A: That’s it. So it was a little awkward, in a homophonic way.

Q: I know right – those 14th century folk were stuck in the Dark Ages in terms of accepting diversity!

A: No, homoPHONIC – same spelling, two meanings.

Q: Right, right, gotcha. Brothers from different mothers.

A: So anyway, to solve things, they decided that “quashen” would ALSO mean the shaky, violent stuff too, eventually expanded to mean “crush, injure or weaken”.

Q: Confusing.

A: Have you MET English?

Q: Good point.

A: Anyway, it was about this time that the word “squash” debuted – originally written as “squachen”.

Q: Squachen? Sounds like a small chicken. “Chef’s special tonight is a roasted squachen with baby beet reduction and a broccolini foam…”

A: Cute, but no. This new word clearly shared its ancestry with that older, original violent version of “quassare”. In fact, it came directly from a Latin swear word “exquassare” – the “ex” part meaning “out”, essentially saying to squeeze or crush something from the outside.

Q: Like squashing a bug?

A: Yep. Or a lemon.

Q: So I get what you mean now about one and a half definitions, because you now have “quash” and “squash” both meaning to crush something, then this other half of “quash” meaning to “nullify or void”.

A: And that’s actually how it stayed for a bunch of centuries – both “squash” and “quash” being essentially interchangeable.

Q: When did that stop?

A: Around the 1600s, “quash” started to lean into the meaning of “to forcibly subdue” rather than “to go splat”. For example, “to quash a revolution”. It slowly distanced itself from the shaky, violent squishy stuff and went more towards the figurative crushing.

Q: So the crushing of uprisings, hopes and dreams?

A: Yes, all that good stuff. Just not lemons.

Q: Actually, speaking of fruit – when did the “squash” become a thing?

A: Well noted – because pumpkins, squash and other gourds are indeed considered fruit, not vegetables! Anyway, it got its name around the 1640s, but with a completely different origin. It was from early American settlers in New England borrowing the word from the indigenous word “askutasquash” – meaning “things that may be eaten raw”.

Q: Wow, not a Latin word in sight.

A: Nope. By the way, a popular 1700s New England settler dish of corn and beans had a similar name origin. It was called “succotash” – living on today mainly through Looney Tunes’ cat Sylvester saying “sufferin succotash” to highlight his lisp!

Q: This has been quite the ride this week.

A: It certainly has.

Q: So, where do things stand today?

A: As was hinted at 400 years ago, “quash” broke away and today retains the meaning of “forcibly suppress or subdue”. Curiously however, it also retains that oldest meaning of all – the original “nullify or void”. It continues to be used solely in legal settings, to nullify or set something aside. For example, a judge may quash a subpoena.

Q: So the brother from another mother survived!

A: If you find yourself in court, yes.

Q: What about “squash”?

A: Well, it’s a much busier word. Clearly, it still retains the more literal violent tendencies, such as squashing bugs or lemons – with every variation of pulping, flattening and crushing that you can imagine. Curiously, it can also mean “subdue or silence”, however writers tend to leave that work to “quash”.

Q: Very wise. It’s bound to be very busy with all those bugs and lemons.

A: Which brings us of course to the final meanings, as a racquet game that gets its name from the ball being squashed and the drink made from squashing fruit into a liquid.

Q: Mmmmm lemon squash… nothing quashes my thirst quite like it!

A: You’re probably looking for “quench”.

Q: Hey! Who are you calling a quench?

A: Ooookay, time to go…

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