CLOSE
iStock
iStock

The Fascinating Origins of 12 Beautiful Flower Names

iStock
iStock

With spring in bloom, let’s stop and smell the etymological roses. Here are the origins behind the names of 12 of the loveliest flowers.

1. ANEMONE

The anemone is also known as the windflower. Indeed, the word anemone, first attested in English in the mid-1500s, probably comes from a Greek word literally meaning “daughter of the wind.” It's said that the brightly colored petals of this flower only opened when the wind blew. Sea anemones took their names in the late 1700s on their likeness to the flowers.

2. AMARYLLIS

In the pastoral poems of Theocritus, Ovid, and Virgil, Amaryllis was a common name for a beautiful country girl. Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, adopted Amaryllis for this flower family in the late 1700s. The name Amaryllis may derive from a Greek verb meaning to “sparkle” or “shine,” fitting for the rich red veins that pop out from the long white petals of these flowers.

3. CARNATION

There are two etymologies for carnation, a term found in English in the early 1500s. According to one, carnation may be a corruption of coronation, perhaps because the flower’s toothed petals resembled crowns or because the flowers were worn, crown-like, as garlands. The second etymology comes from the flower’s original color, and roots carnation in the Middle French carnation, “pink complexion,” from the Latin root caro, “flesh,” source of less delicate words like carnal and carnage.

4. CHRYSANTHEMUM

True to their etymology, chrysanthemums often bloom in striking gold. The word chrysanthemum, emerging in English in the late 1500s, comes from the Greek krysanthemon, meaning “gold flower.” The first component, krysos (“gold”), shows up in the biological term chrysalis. The second, anthos (“flower”), appears, among other words, in anthology, literally “a collection of flowers,” first used for a compilation of small poems in the early 1600s. Chrysanthemums also answer to mums, a shortening evidenced in the history of the word since the late 1800s.

5. DAISY

The word daisy has deep roots in the English language. As attested to in some of English’s earliest records, daisy comes from the Old English phrase dægesege: the “day’s eye,” as the flower’s white petals close at dusk and open at dawn, like the eye of the day as it sleeps and wakes.

6. FORGET-ME-NOT

The name forget-me-not was a direct translation from the Old French ne m’oubliez mye (“do not forget me”). Renaissance romantics believed that, if they wore these soft-colored flowers, they would never be forgotten by their lovers, making the flower a symbol of fidelity and everlasting love. Other languages also translated ne m’oubliez mye: For this flower, German has Vergissmeinnicht, Swedish has förgätmigej, and Czech has nezabudka.

7. LUPINES

The tall, tapering blue clusters of lupines certainly don’t look like their etymology: lupinus, a Latin adjective for “wolf.” So why the fierce name? Perhaps the flowers were once thought to deplete the ground in which they grow, devouring its nutrients like a wolf. This is likely folk etymology, though, as lupines actually enrich the soil and have long been harvested for their nutritious seeds.

8. ORCHID

Orchids are a diverse family of extremely elegant flowers, but the literal meaning of their name, documented in English in the early 1840s, is a bit earthier, shall we say. Orchid comes from the Greek orkhis, meaning “testicle.” The flower's bulbous roots, often paired, have long been thought to resemble those male organs.

9. PEONY

The peony, a word found in Old English, was believed to have healing properties in early medicine, which is why its name might honor Paion, the physician of the gods in Greek mythology. The name Paion might come from a root Greek verb meaning “touch,” hence “one who touches,” hence “heals.” His name also gives us paean, “a song of praise,” as Paion became identified with Apollo, Greek god of music and poetry.

10. RHODODENDRON

Like many other flower names, rhododendron enters the English record in the mid-1500s. The name literally means “rose tree” in Greek (rhodon means and is related to the word “rose”). It’s an apt name, for this shrub or small tree blooms with brilliant, rose-colored flowers. After Latin grafted the word, rhododendron took another path, its rs and ds eventually arranged into the name of another blossoming plant: oleander.

11. TULIP

Contrary to the grade-school groaner, tulip does not come from the fact that the flower can look like two lips kissing. Passing into English via Dutch or German in the late 1500s, tulip actually comes from the Turkish tülbent, based on the Persian dulband: “turban.” The flower, to its ancient namers, resembled the male headwear worn throughout the Middle East, India, and parts of Africa. The word turban also comes from this Persian dulband.

12. VIOLET

Before we had the color violet, recorded by the late 1300s, we had the flower violet, emerging some decades earlier in the same century. Violet grows out of the French violete or violette, a diminutive of viole, in turn the Latin viola, its name for this distinctively purple flower. This viola has no etymological relationship to the instrument. Some scholars suspect Latin got viola from the Greek name for the plant, ion, also with no etymological relationship to the molecule. Greek “floral” ion, though, does show up in chemistry. The name of the element iodine was ultimately coined from the Greek ioeides, “violet-colored,” because the substance emits a violet-colored vapor.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

LEGEND HAS IT

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

OLD TALE, NEW TRADITIONS

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
video
Of Buckeyes and Butternuts: 29 States With Weird Nicknames for Their Residents
iStock
iStock

Tracing a word’s origin and evolution can yield fascinating historical insights—and the weird nicknames used in some states to describe their residents are no exception. In the Mental Floss video above, host John Green explains the probable etymologies of 29 monikers that describe inhabitants of certain states across the country.

Some of these nicknames, like “Hoosiers” and “Arkies” (which denote residents of Indiana and Arkansas, respectively) may have slightly offensive connotations, while others—including "Buckeyes," "Jayhawks," "Butternuts," and "Tar Heels"—evoke the military histories of Ohio, Kansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. And a few, like “Muskrats” and “Sourdoughs,” are even inspired by early foods eaten in Delaware and Alaska. ("Goober-grabber" sounds goofier, but it at least refers to peanuts, which are a common crop in Georgia, as well as North Carolina and Arkansas.)

Learn more fascinating facts about states' nicknames for their residents by watching the video above.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios