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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: These Words Will Grow on You!

The flowers our ancestors knew and loved are the same ones that dot our gardens, nurseries, and hillsides. Did you ever wonder how a hydrangea got that name? Or a narcissus? Or a daisy? Or even a dandelion? Here we look at familiar flowers and the origins of their names.


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It's spring! My favorite time of year! I love to see the flowers blooming on the hills all around Southern California. I love smelling their fragrance (in spite of allergies). After moving to a country area in the desert, I got books on wildflowers so I could learn a bit about what I was looking at. I grew up in suburban Chicago and spent my summers in Wisconsin and Minnesota, so my experience with flowers has changed drastically over the years. As I learn about the flowers that dot the landscape, I realize that many acquired their names decades, or even hundreds, of years ago; but why were they called by those strange names? Let's find out!

It seems our early flower-observing ancestors used all their senses when they gave the finally accepted names to various flowers. My mother was always fond of pansies, so that was the first plant I wanted to check. Apparently, the pansy's appearance elicited a number of different visions, but a hood covering three faces seemed to be the prevailing impression. The "facial expression" was interpreted to be "thoughtful" or "pensive"; in French, that would be pensée (I am sure you see where this is going), so our pretty tri-colored flower, once called "love-in-idleness," "kiss-me-at-the-garden-gate," and "heartsease" became "pansy" (Garrison, Why You Say It, p. 180). Also called herb de la pensée, the Anglicized word has also become synonymous with "weakling." Whether that derogatory use of the word came from the flower or from the "Pansy Books," by Isabella Alden - popular morality tales for youngsters - is not known (though, most likely, today only the correlation to the flower would come to mind) (Holt, p. 194).

I said that all the senses came into play when naming flowers. Certainly their scents had a lot to do with the description one would ascribe to whatever was found in the garden. Such was the case with the nasturtium. Taking its moniker from nasus, meaning "nose," and torquea, from "twist," the flower's tendency to assault the nostrils caused the ancients to call it a "nose-twister" (Garrison, What's in a Word?, p. 162), eventually slurred to "nasturtium."

Appearance still seems to be the prevailing method of naming a flower (or weed, in this case). I grew up in the Midwest where we were tormented by dandelions. As a young child, I'd pick them and put them in juice glasses around the house, certain they were adding to the ambiance. My mother disagreed, finding them to be a nuisance. Had we known where the name "dandelion" originated, I wonder if our respective attitudes would have been altered at all. Here it is not the blossom, but the leaf, that gives the plant its unusual name. Dent is French for "tooth," while lion means, well, "lion"; giving us the dent-de-lion or "tooth of the lion." Rather than a single leaf resembling the tooth, however, it is suggested that the jagged edges of the leaves resemble teeth (Barnhart, p. 251). Now, I have never gotten close enough to a lion's mouth to check out the teeth and verify that the leaf edges of this weed resemble lions' teeth, but back in 1373, when the first recorded writing of the plant's name is found (American Heritage, p. 66), maybe someone actually did do the requisite research.

Not far from where I live in Southern California is a location called "Hollyhock House," built by Frank Lloyd Wright and adorned with the hollyhock design at every turn. Prior to AD 1000, visitors to "the Isle of Farne, off the northeast coast of England" found a plant that was dubbed "Saint Cuthbert's cole" (this because it had been where Saint Cuthbert lived during the seventh century) (Garrison, What's in a Word?, p. 162). Back at that time period, the type of plant was dubbed a "hock," though that term has been all but lost to obscurity, except for this particular usage (Barnhart, p. 485). It is now called a "mallow," and it grew/grows in swampy or marshy areas. By the 1500s, the association of the plant to the saint gave it the label holi hocke ("holy mallow"), eventually slurred to what we call today "hollyhock" (Garrison, What's in a Word?, p. 162).

Last week I was given an asphodel: a lovely yellow flower, frequently an early spring bloomer (in Central California these blossoms are amazingly prevalent, and cover full hillsides, some cultivated, but many just growing wild). Over time, the asphodel became affodill (someone lisped?) and then acquired, likely to make it sound French (de, or d'), "daffodil" (Funk, p. 102). It is not uncommon for a word variation to be the result of usage and slurring of sounds. Many flowers retain the Latin names they were given by botanists, only being slightly changed for ease of spelling and/or pronunciation. Another example of this is what is called viola in Latin: a flower that is most often found to be lavender or purple, but can also be grown in white, blue, yellow, and gold varieties - now known as the "violet" (Hendrickson, p. 702), perhaps to differentiate it from a musical instrument! It has been found in writings as "violette" even before 1300 (Barnhart, p. 1205).

Appearance, as mentioned before, is a major factor in giving a plant its name. The turban-shaped blossom of one plant caused the French gardener who allegedly was first to name it, did so accordingly: tulipan (French for "turban"), which, of course, evolved into what we call a "tulip" today (Garrison, Why You Say It, p. 180) (having nothing to do with the number "two" or the facial element "lips"). Similarly, the daisy gets its name from its appearance (in You've Got Mail, Meg Ryan tells Tom Hanks that she thinks the daisy is the friendliest flower, she was not far off from how it was named). The fact that the flower would open its white petals when assaulted by the sun's rays, revealing the golden center, then shutting down again at night, made it appear to be a botanical "eye," open in the day and closed at night. It was given the name daeges eage, meaning "day's eye" (Funk, p. 41), or "eye of the day" (Garrison, Why You Say It, pp. 176-177). Another slur and "daisy" is born.

Another example of appearance-equals-name is the hydrangea, but here it is not the flower, but the seed capsule that gives rise to the label. Its shape reminded the botanist Linnaeus of a tiny water pitcher or cup. In Greek, this would be a combination of hydro ("water") and angos ("vessel"), leading to today's hydrangea (Garrison, What's in a Word?, p. 162).

Sometimes the names come from mythology or culture, possibly combined with a flower's effect. Such is the case with the narcissus. A narcissist is one who is in love with him/herself and comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool . . . the vision was so entrancing that he ended up falling into the water during his gazing episode, causing him to drown. The gods then metamorphosed his body into a flower, called, of course, the narcissus, some varieties of which are said to induce a sleep state in the person who smells them (Hendrickson, p. 471). Another flower that "springs" from Greek mythology is the hyacinth. Hyacinthus was a mortal, a young Spartan loved by the gods Apollo and Zephyrus. Zephyrus's power (the wind) caused a disc, thrown by Apollo, to go off course during a game, hitting the lad in the head and killing him. Apollo, so overcome by grief and unable to let go of the beloved boy, made the corpse into a flower, forever called the hyacinth (p. 345).

Not every flower can spring from a story of love or beauty. The "cowslip," an English wildflower, gets its name from neither "cows" nor "lip," but from the location in which it is grown: the cow pasture; springing forth from the "dung" (anciently called slyppe, or, more recently, slip). Its Latin name is Primula veris (Funk, p. 182), which, to my way of thinking, sounds much better than "cowdung," the literal translation of "cowslip"!

But let us not end on such a negative note. Our final flower will elevate the subject to the heavens: it is, of course, the much loved and versatile marigold. Its yellow hue impressed even the early Crusaders and they transported the roots back to Europe where it flourished. They named it after Christ's mother, the Virgin Mary, calling it "Mary's gold." Its healing power (as a wound poultice) and flavor enhancer (in stews and soups) made it treasured among all walks of life. Again, the slur of its name resulted in what we now call the "marigold" (Garrison, What's in a Word?, pp. 162-163) and it continues to be a flower that is popular all over the world. Its Latin name was bestowed by the botanist Linnaeus: Calendula officinalis, called thus because of its tendency to blossom on the first days of most months ("in the calends") (Hendrickson, p. 438).

Did your ancestors have a role in naming some of these flowers (or the many others not addressed here)? Or did they grow them in their gardens, perhaps putting vases of the beautiful blooms on their dining tables? Perhaps they just enjoyed walking through fields of marigolds, daffodils, or daisies; maybe they recognized the healing powers of some of the plants noted here, or perhaps they were allergic to the smells and/or the pollen (possibly passing that gene on to you). Regardless, the chances are your ancestors, like mine (Great-Grandma had a lovely flower garden, I am told), had some contact with at least one of the flowers we've examined. I wonder if they knew how the names were derived.


American Heritage Dictionaries. Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.

Barnhart, Robert K., Ed. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 2003.

Funk, Charles Earle. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1986

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Garrison, Webb B. Why You Say It: The Fascinating Stories behind over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Holt, Alfred H. Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions, Rev. Ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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