Sunday, 5 March 2017

Blooming Etymologies

With spring fast approaching here in the UK and, undoubtedly aided by a mild winter, the flowers associated with the season are already adding a splash of colour. Snowdrops have come and will soon be gone, crocus are putting on an excellent show, yellow daffodils are out or nearly so, and tulips will soon be flowering and looking past their best seemingly hours later.

As with all nouns, names of flowers were originally created in order to be recognised. Over the years these have been corrupted and changed beyond recognition, or named by science for reasons usually only they understand. Thus this time, as you may have guessed, a look at the origins of some flower names. Taken in alphabetical order we begin with .......

Agave is named from the Latin, itself from Greek Agaue, a proper name in Greek mythology. Her name, and thus that of the flower, is derived from the Greek meaning 'noble, illustrious' and thought to have been used by scientists to refer to the flower stem rather than the flower.

Alyssum certainly comes from another Latin loan word from the Greek, although just why alyssos describes the plant as 'curing madness' is not clear.

Amaryllis also has a Latin/Greek origin and comes from amaryssein meaning 'to twinkle, sparkle'.

Anemone is a Greek word meaning 'wind flower', literally 'daughter of the wind' and can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European animus, to breathe', with a feminine suffix.

Aster is named from the Latin and Greek for 'star', a refernece to the flower shape.

Azaleas like sandy soil and is named from the Greek azaleos 'dry'. Related words are found in Hittite hassa 'hearth' and Sanskrit asa 'ashes, dust'.

Begonias are named after the French governor of Santo Domingo and patron of botany Michael Begon (1638-1710).

Chrysanthemum comes from the Greek khrysanthemon literally meaning 'golden flower' and unites the elements anthemon 'a flower' and Proto-Indo-European andh 'bloom'.

Cowslip is named for it was thought to grow only on ground where cow dung could previously have been found.

Cyclamen comes from Latin/Greek where ultimately kyklos meant 'circle', a reference to the bulbous shape of the root.

Dahlia comes, as many will know, from Anders Dahl, the Swedish botanist who first found and identified it.

Delphinium is another of Latin/Greek origins. Here Greek staphis agria literally means 'wild raisin'.

Edelweiss, as Vince Hill will undoubtedly have told you, is from the Old High German edili weiss of 'noble white'.

Erica is a plant genus named from the Greek ereike 'heath'.

Forsythia, which just so happens to be showing the first signs of the yellow flower through the window, is named after Scottish horticulturalist William Forsyth (1737-1804). His family name is of Gaelic origin, Fearsithe meaning 'man of peace'.

Fuchsia comes from German botanist Leonard Fuchs (1501-1566) whose name means 'fox'. While the term 'fuchsia' has been taken for the red colouring of the same name, the idea of 'red' referring to the colouring of the fox is, to say the least, fanciful.

Geraniums are named from the Greek and Latin, where grus means 'crane' and refers to the seed pods resembling a bill of the crane, indeed the plant is still sometimes referred to as 'cranesbill'.

Gladiolus is Latin for 'small sword', a reference to its sword-shaped leaves.

Gypsophila comes from the Greek, where gypsos philein literally describes 'to love chalk'.

Hydrangea comes from the Greek hydor angeion meaning water vessel' and a reference to the seed pods.

Lavender came to English from French and ultimately from Latin, where lavare meant 'to wash' and a reminder the scent was used to wash and perfume fabrics.

Magnolias are named after the French physican and botanist Pierre Magnol (1638-1715).

Narcissus comes from the Greek narke 'numbness' and related to narcotic becuase of the sedative alkaloids obtained from the plant.

Orchids are the favourite flower of many because of their numerous forms and extraodinary colours and shapes. It is also my favourite flower, but for very different reasons. It came to English from Latin orchis and Greek orkhis meaning 'testicle' because of the shape of the root. Around 1300 it was known in England as the 'ballockwort', where 'ballock' is simply the diminutive of 'ball'.

Poinsettias are named after Joel Poinsett, the US ambassador to Mexico who is credited with bringing the plant to the attention of the rest of world - but this may be a load of orchids.

Rhododendron is the Greek for 'rose tree'.

Snapdragon flowers are said to resemble the mouth of a dragon - and also, since 1704, the name of a game where players pluck raisins from burning brandy and them eat them while still burning.

Tansy is a herb, its name from the French and ultimately the Greek athanasia 'immortality'., itself a a prefix meaning 'not' and thanatos 'death'. This may seem a strange meaning until we learn the plant has always had negative associations with pregnancy, either as a contraceptive or to bring about a miscarriage.

Tulips are my least favourite flower, the leaves begin to droop even before the flower emerges and the petals fall far too easily. It came to English through French and ultimately from Turkish tulbent 'a turban' as it is said to resemble such.

Wisteria was wrongly named after American anatomist Caspar Wistar (1761-1818), making it rather less of an honour.

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