A Rose By Any Other Name

Anthony Poulton-Smith considers Lothian Floral Etymologies…

Ever since the ice sheets receded at the end of the last ice age our islands have been home to a rich variety of flora. Whenever we travel through the countryside, walk in the park, or even just look out of our windows, it is the plant life which turns a landscape into a view.

While we are familiar with many of the names, how often do we give a second thought as to why they are known as such? There are some who will be aware of the daisy coming from ‘day’s eye’, a reminder of how it follows the sun across the sky, or how the dandelion is from the French dent de lion or ‘lion’s tooth’. But what of the other flowers which flourish locally? Who gave these names and why?

Grasses are among the most common plants and one of the most recent to have evolved. Yet the name must have been among the earliest to be coined for it can be traced back to a root it shares with the earliest European languages and from ghros ‘young shoot, to sprout’ and ghre ‘to grow, become green’.

MarigoldAmong the earliest of summer flowers are the anemones, the name coming from the Greek for ‘wind flower’ although correctly this should be seen as ‘daughter of the wind’. A yellow colour is common to many and the name of the marigold reflects its colour. Less obvious, especially with modern pronunciation, is the addition of Mary, thought to be a reference to the mother of Christ. Interestingly the chrysanthemum is from Latin and Greek for a marigold even though the flowers are very, very different.

Pronunciation also tends to hide the primrose as ‘the first rose’, this coming from Old French primerose. As a pale yellow colour, primrose is not recorded before 1844. While the cowslip may seem self-explanatory, and the first element is from Old English cu or ‘cow’, this is not a bovine banana skin but from slyppe or ‘dung’. Here it is suggested the cattle provided a free and natural fertiliser which sparked the growth of the cowslip. While the medium is clearly beneficial there is no evidence to suggest this is the preferred medium of the plant.

One of the loveliest names for any flower is the fritillary, although more often heard to describe the butterfly even though this has only been known as such since the middle of the nineteenth century and certainly named from the plant due to a similarity in respect markings. Ultimately it is the markings which have given the plant its name. Latin fritillus means ‘dice-box’, which is what the non-productive and ornamental parts of the flower are said to resemble

brambleThe ubiquitous bramble, loathed by all until the fruit, is ultimately from the Proto-Germanic, the ancestor of English, German, Danish, Dutch and the Scandinavian tongues, braemaz referring to ‘a point’. The broom tree has identical origins. The poppy is from a root pap which has given us Germanic papua and Latin papavum and originally meant ‘to swell’. This refers to the seed head rather than the flower itself, showing how, at least historically, the seed of the poppy was more important than the flower and even brought about the measurement of the poppy-seed which equated to rather less than a twelfth of an inch.

Dog RoseAs a flower roses are undoubtedly the most prized of all blooms, those who dislike the plant do so because of the thorns and this, for the etymologist, is very interesting. Rose enthusiasts are not a modern phenomenon, there is evidence of roses being grown for their blooms and perfumes in Macedonia, Thrace and Persia soon after the earliest cities appeared. The modern word ‘rose’ has related forms in virtually every European language and can be traced back to the Greek rhodon and earlier. Furthermore there is the Aramaic warda, Persian gul, Turkish gul, and once more back to that ancestral language of Proto-Indo-European where wrdho means ‘thorn’.

Despite some of these terms being centuries old, with origins dating back thousands of years, the meanings are as relevant as ever. An elderly relative asked to have every rose removed from her garden as they were “truly wicked”. She would not have been surprised to learn the name already warned of the thorns some six thousand years ago.


This is the first of two features by Anthony Poulton-Smith; the second will discuss fauna of the Lothian region.   After a career in light engineering, Anthony turned to writing some twenty years ago. Since then 67 books and 1,500 articles have been published, the majority of books on the origin of place names and many articles covering diverse etymologies. He gives regular talks on the subjects covered by his writing.  He has also written innumerable puzzles, crosswords and quizzes.


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