In a recent post, I had originally mentioned asparagus/asparagi as an example of hypercorrection due to the common Latin pluralization rule of –us –> –i . However, from further investigation I’m not so sure that asparagus/asparagi is actually so “wrong” after all.
Frequency in Modern Usage
nGram Viewer results:
Some observations using the same corpus
- English-language texts that use asparagi are predominately scientific articles as used in binomial nomenclature of biological taxonomy, e.g. puccinia asparagi (a plant disease) or tuber asparagi (a kind of herb).
- Search results (with the English corpus setting switched on), included a bunch of Italian articles, on diverse subjects, that use asparagi (plural of asparago).
Etymologically, the origin of asparagus doesn’t seem to be conclusively Greek or Latin but a derivative of a much earlier (hypothetical) language, Proto-Indo-European. Using EtymOnline and the OED as my sources:
[L., a. Gr. ἀσπάραγος, properly ἀσϕάραγος, of doubtful origin. In med.L. often sparagus, sparagi (OIt. sparagi, sparaci), found in Eng. c 1000… influence of herbalists and horticultural writers made asparagus familiar…corrupted before 1650 to sparagrass, sparrow-grass, which remained the polite name during the 18th c. …During the 19th century asparagus returned into literary and polite use, leaving sparrow-grass to the illiterate…]
(Oxford English Dictionary CD version 2.0, 1999)
Functional and Cognitive Linguistic Considerations
From the functional/cognitive linguistic approach, the difference between asparagus and asparaguses likely depends on how the speaker perceives the structure of the referent: either as an uncountable (mass) noun or a count(able) noun. In the case of a speaker who utters asparaguses, the referent is likely considered countable (“Two asparaguses on my plate.”). Whereas, the speaker who utters asparagus is likely to consider the referent to be uncountable (“Sauté four asparagus for dinner tonight, please.”) and therefore the idea of a pluralized asparagus technically doesn’t exist (any number of asparagus stalks is still asparagus).
Summary & Conclusion
Basically, I’m in favor of all three of the plural forms discussed above:
- asparagi for binomial nomenclature as used in science, or quoting texts related to Italian gastronomy
- asparagus/asparaguses depending on speaker’s (potentially subconscious) perception
Although not mentioned above, for amusement, I’m also in favor of asparagu, asparagee, asparagae, asparagugu, and lastly and exhaustively asparagugugaga.