This is a “Best of Wendy Langhans” Report
What’s in a Name?
Chevy Volt. Ford Mustang. Mazda Miata. When we speak about automobiles, we often include both the manufacture’s name and the model name. It’s the automotive equivalent of “binomial nomenclature”, the formal naming system (genus and species) that biologists have used since the mid 16th century to name plants and animals. Binomial names allow biologists to speak to each other across distance and time, knowing they are talking about the same organism. Binomial names promote precision, but limit creativity.
Common names, on the other hand, are imprecise but very creative. As Richard Mabey wrote in a recent article, “Common names are a kind of time capsule, a record of the powers of observation and literary inventiveness of ordinary people.” Common names differ, depending on where (and when) the observer lives.Consider, for example, the European wildflower “viola tricolor”. It’s not a California native, but it is found in LA and Ventura Counties. It has at least four common names that I know of – pansy, heart’s ease, love-in-idleness and Johnny-jump-up. And each of these common names has a story behind it.
Take a closer look at this photo of a flower growing on my front porch. Doesn’t it resemble a face – two eyes, a nose and a mouth? In France, during the Middle Ages, this flower was given the common name “pensée” (thought) because the flower’s face resembled someone deep in thought. Mabey, in his book “Weeds”, describes how the English later Anglicized the French “pensée” to our more familiar-sounding “pansy”.
In England, ordinary people looked at the same flower and saw something altogether different. They saw TWO faces…kissing each other. Imagine a suitor whose trembling heart is put at ease by his sweetheart’s kiss. Now you have “heart’s ease” (or heartsease). Or imagine two young lovers spending a sunny afternoon together and you have “love-in-idleness”. Or how about an exasperated young woman yelling at her man, “Stop talking about love and just KISS me!” “Johnny-Jump-up” is a shortened version of “jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me”.
How odd – my conventional stereotypes have just been turned upside down. The French are the intellectuals and the English are the romantics. Perhaps our naming something says as much about us as it does about what we are naming. Here’s a picture of one of our native Johnny-Jump-up’s. Quick – what do YOU see?
You can listen to stories like this every Friday morning at 7:10 a.m. on “The SCV Outdoor Report”, brought to you by your hometown radio station KHTS (AM1220) and by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.
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