I've been watching with interest the construction of a new infill project at a major intersection a couple of blocks from my house. It's going to be one of the biggest mixed-use projects in my area of Oakland--26 condominiums, with retail space on the ground floor and 36 underground parking spaces. To judge from the renderings, and from the Palladian arches rising from the foundation, the architect had Tuscany on his mind.
So naturally I was curious to see what they were going to call this work-in-progress. Yesterday I got my answer, in the form of a billowing banner, affixed to the guard fence, on which was printed in fancy script: VILLA ZUCCONE.
Zuccone ... zuccone. It looked Italian, but I couldn't recall any villages, lakes, or famous people in Italy named "Zuccone." So when I got home I consulted my paperback Italian-English dictionary. And there it was:
Okay, I thought, it's just a paperback dictionary. Maybe it overlooks a nuance or two. I did some more research and discovered that "zuccone" derives from "zucca," which means "pumpkin."
A "zuccone" is, literally, a pumpkinhead.
In other words, a dunce.
Now, if you go to the the project's web site, you won't see any references to pumpkins or dummies. In fact, there the project is called "The Piedmont"--logically enough, as one of its coordinates is Piedmont Avenue. So I'm guessing someone in marketing decided "The Piedmont" wasn't Italian enough, or grand enough, or Z-ish enough, for this endeavor, and renamed the residences "Villa Zuccone" without doing much (or any) homework. (Why not just translate "The Piedmont" to "Il Piemonte"--an actual region in Italy? I have no idea.)
Then it dawned on me that maybe Marketing Person was attempting a tribute to the site's recent history. For as long as I've lived in the neighborhood, the corner was vacant ten months out of the year. In December it turned into a Christmas tree lot. And in October--bingo!--it was a pumpkin patch. I'm sure you'll agree that "Villa Zucca" lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. (As they probably say in real estate, there's a zucca born every minute.)
I'm groaning over the "villa" part as well. Webster's 3rd International Dictionary defines "villa" as "a country estate" or a "pretentious rural or suburban residence with extensive grounds maintained as pleasurable retreat from city life by a person of wealth." Well, Villa Zuccone does score points for pretension. When I lived in Israel, I was mystified by the local custom of calling any detached house, no matter how modest, a "villa" (Hebrew plural: "villot"). Those little Israeli bungalows now look like Tara compared to the one-bedroom apartments rising over yonder at Dummkopf Corners.
Of course, when it comes to baroque naming conventions, we city folk are babes in the woods. Our suburban counterparts are the real innovators here. Mark Billingsley, new homes editor of the Sacramento Bee, wrote in October about a couple of real estate "marketing experts" responsible for master-planned monikers such as "Sutter Meadows" and "Artisan Collection" (for the latter, "the key was to play off artistic expressions from the Middle Ages," writes Billingsley without a trace of irony). (I can't supply a link because the article wasn't archived.) Language issues come up in the burbs, too, Billingsley notes. One subdivision's proposed name was a lovely-sounding French phrase in which, as Billingsley delicately puts it, "one word translated as 'singing,' but another word, in English, was a four-letter synonym for rooster." Merde!
You can read a more blatantly opinionated treatise about subdivision names at Denver Infill Blog, which traces the history of suburban naming from the nineteenth and early twentieth century (when developers named their creations after--who else?--themselves) to modest, two-word titles in the postwar years (Columbine Knolls, Heather Ridge) to the current fad for overblown six-word appellations beginning with a definite article ("The W at X Y Z"). Scroll down to play mix-and-match and create your own gated community. "The Sanctuary at Thunder Edge Crossing," anyone? (Hat tip to Ego Ventures.)
Photo: My Serenity Garden.