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Interesting Etymologies 52 : Flowers

"Hello again Word Lovers!"

In this episode we are looking at the names of flowers. This presents us with various categories to dive into:

Words that haven't changed such as Crocus from Greek (Krokos). Saffron from Arabic (Zafaran) via Sanskrit.

Words with religious meanings: Marigold - Mary + Gold, Rosemary. Snowdrops were formally known as "Our Lady's Bells"

Holly - while being considered the thorns of the crown of Jesus, the name does not come from "Holy" but from Old English hol leah - the dwelling by the hollow, or the descriptive holeage - hollow eyed.

Another source of names is by the person who discovered or classified the plant. Michel Bégon (1638 - 1710), French administrator of the islands of Santo Domingo (later known as Haiti) and amateur botanist. His name was given to the Begonia. The genus was actually coined by Charles Plumier (1646 - 1704) who discovered the plant and then adopted by the "father of modern taxonomy" Carl Linnaeus (1707 - 1778) in 1753.

The Bougainvillea was discovered by French botanist Philibert Commerson in Rio De Janeiro in the 1760s. He named the plant after his friend Louis de Bougainville (1729 - 1811) a French admiral and explorer.

Linnaeus is responsible for the naming of Camellias, which he named after Joseph Kamel (1661 - 1706), a Moravian botanist who first described the flower.

In Medieval times flowers were known to hold certain properties so some names reflect these understandings:

Pansy - from the French pensée (thought). The plant was considered a symbol of love and remembrance, thoughtfulness and nostlgia.

Dandelion - once again from the French, literally meaning tooth of a lion - Dent de Lion. The diuretic properties of the plant are not reflected in the English adaptation from French but the actually French name for the plant is Pissenlit which means "piss on the bed"

Daisy - Day's Eye, a reflection of the fact the plant opens in the morning with the sunlight and shuts at dusk.

Foxglove - From German Fingerhut, literally thimble.

Buttercup - looks like a cup of butter. The word kup/cup is of very ancient lineage and possibly not even Indo-European. It is seen in many languages.

Orchid - Is from the Greek word for testicle much like Avocado descends from the Aztec word for testicle too!

Hydrangea - In 1739 botanist Grovonius named the flower a combination of hydro (water) and angeion (barrel) although once again it is Linnaeus who classified the plant with this name. The Hydrangea has another name, coined by French botanist Philibert Commerson, who called it Hortensia. There is much speculation surrounding this name, whether it was the name of his mistress or linked to Hortense de Nassau or if it is even a loose translation of from the garden in Latin. Hortus being Latin for Garden.

Poppy - from papua, probably vulgar Latin possibly meaning to swell.

Rhododendron - A bush of roses : rhodon: rose + dendron - tree. That PIE root of deru to mean be firm, solid, steadfast, and even connected to oak and door.

Lavender - lavendula, Latin lividus - bluish, livid. Probably associated to French lavande - a washing. Latin lavare to wash, PIE root leue - to wash. The connection is strong as it was used to scent washed fabric.

Heather - originally a celtic word haeddre in Old English or Scottish.

Iris - Greek for a rainbow but origin is uncertain.

Gladiolus - Some interesting possibilities here. A Gladiator as a Roman swordsman, his Gladius was his sword but the word root is also glade, in Old Norse this meant bright. words for sword or dagger in other languages show this word has travelled extensively and can be traced to the Scottish word Claymore. Some theories suggest that Latin borrowed the Gladio word from Celtic.

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

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