Roses are red, Violets are…blue?

I really enjoyed writing about the origins of flower names in a previous blog, “A Rose by any Other Name“, and since there are so many flowers with such pretty names I thought I would do one more.

Violets – We’ve all heard the Valentine rhyme with roses and violets, but violets aren’t really blue – they are violet!! Interestingly, the color came after the flower in this case – the flower is named after the Latin viola or a little violin.  The valentine poem we are all so familiar was first found in Gammer Gurton’s Garland which was a 1784 collection of nursey rhymes:

The rose is red, the violet's blue
The honey's sweet, and so are you 
Ilya Mashkov, Still Life with Camellia (1913)

Camellia  – When Carl Linnaeus standardized plant names in 1753, he named these flowers after Father Georg Joseph Kamel (1161–1706), a Jesuit missionary and naturalist. Father Kamel was a missionary to the Philippines where he became a plant specialist of the Philippine islands. Camellias are native to Japan and China, where they are known to exist since 2737 BCE. The flower is called Tsubaki in Japanese and symbolizes the divine.

Peony – this beautiful flower symbolizing romance and prosperity is named after Paeon who in Greek mythology was the physician to the Greek Gods. Paeon was a student of Asclepius, the God of medicine and healing. Asclepius was jealous of Paeon and threatened to kill him. Zeus turned Paeon into a flower to save him from Asclepius – and that’s how this flower got its name. Peonies are the national flower of China and are known as the king of flowers in China.

Pete Mondrian, Red Amaryllis with Blue Background (1907)

Amaryllis  – this flowers is named after a shepherdess in Latin poet Virgil’s work called the Eclogues which are a collection of 10 unconnected pastoral poems that he composed between 42 and 37 BCE. Amaryllis was in love with Alteo, and to get his attention she pierced her heart daily with a golden arrow for a month. The blood that dropped from her heart was red like the flower which came to be known as Amaryllis. Perhaps also because of the red color, the Amaryllis plays a starring role at Christmas time.

Bildungsroman

Now this is an interesting word.  I was wondering about its origin because it clearly does not sound like an English word. Like many other untranslatable words this one is also German – bildung literally means education and learning, and roman means a novel – and the word has come to mean a novel that focuses on the growth of the protagonist or simply a coming-of-age book.

The word was coined by German philologist Johann Karl Simon Morgenstern (1770 – 1852) in the 1820s during the period of German Enlightenment. He first used the word when he was lecturing students at the University of Dorpat on the self-actualization that individuals realize as they navigate the journey from childhood to young adulthood. The book he may have been lecturing on was Johann Volfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), which now is considered the first novel of theis genre.

The first Bildungsroman: Goethe’s 1795 Novel

During the period of Enlightenment, the centuries old feudal system ended, and there was a burgeoning middle-class.  Artists and authors moved away from religious and aristocratic patronage and gravitated towards this middle class. This was a different, revolutionary era – individuals looked to themselves for their salvation, and personal journeys became of great importance. As a result, authors started writing narratives about personal, mainly spiritual, growth which eventually we now know as Bildungsroman.

When most of us think of American Bildungsroman literature, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Adventures of Tom Sawyer immediately come to mind. Another example is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

Within the genre, there are subgenres –Erziehungsroman is the academic growth of the protagonist, Kunstlerroman is the realization of an artist’s potential, and Zeitroman is one in which the both the era and the protagonist develop together.  So there we have it – an in-depth look at a literary term we have all used when writing papers on Huck Finn!!

A Rose by any other name..

I am always intrigued by names and how they originate and get associated with things. I thought I’ll research a few of my favorite flowers and see how they got the name they did.

Tulip – this beautiful flower originated in Persia and Turkey and gets its name from the Turkish word for turbans. Men wore tulips on their turbans in this region, and Europeans thought the word tulip was for the name of the flower, and not the word for turban and started calling the beautiful flower tulip. It’s interesting because I also think the name looks like a turban – and some sources say that the name originated from the Turkish word for turban. Either way – it’s a perfect name for this much-loved flower.

Theofrastos Triantafyllidis (1881-1955), Still Life with gardenias and red book

Gardenia – this gorgeous white fragrant flower is named after physician and botanist Alexander Garden. It was named that not by Garden himself but Carl Linnaeus a Swedish botanist who formalized binomial nomenclature. Garden lived in Charleston, SC and had sent a magnolia to Linnaeus who felt the need to then name a flower after Garden and picked the cape jasmine and called it gardenia!!

Vincent Van Gogh, Irises, 1889

Iris – the name of this flower is from the Greek word – eiris – which is the name of the Greek Goddess of the rainbow. The flower is called that because it comes in all colors of the rainbow. It is also the flower that announces the arrival of spring by popping out of the ground sometimes through the snow.

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Dahlias, 1874

Dahlia – these flowers symbolize summer – and are also very important for Mexico which is where they originated. They were some of the earlier flowers taken to Europe from the Americas and did well in the German and Swedish summers – and were named dahlia after a Swedish botanist Andres Dahl. The Germans wanted to name the flower Georgina after German botanist Johann Gottlieb Georgi – and called it Georgina through the 19th century until they finally gave in to the Swedes.

Mughal, 17th Century, unknown

Marigold – this deep yellow flower which grows profusely all year long seems to be revered in almost all religions. Its name derives from Mary’s Gold – so named after Mary, the mother of Jesus. Marigolds were taken to Europe from Mexico and Guatemala in the 16th century – in Spain they were placed at the altar of Mary which gave them their name. Marigolds are also used in all Hindu religious ceremonies.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Carnation Lily. Lily, Rose (1885)

Carnations – the name sounds like and is derived from the word coronation – these flowers were used in ancient Greek crowns from which they get their name. Today these flowers are used for solemn occasions.

Lily – lilies get their name from the Greek word leiron which was what they called the while lily. Lilies are the oldest cultivated flowers in the world and were grown by the Cretes as early as 1580 BCE.

So many flowers… I could go on and on !!

Flotsam and Jetsam

While most of us may relate to them as the twin eels in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, these two very interesting words originate from marine debris and are related to the items that were once on a ship but are now in the ocean.

Flotsam and Jetsam, 1908, John Singer Sargent, watercolor on paper

Flotsam is debris or rubbish that is found floating around in the ocean that got there because of a ship accident or wreck. It was never deliberately thrown into the ocean from the ship. The word flotsam comes from the French word floter which simply means to float. The rule of finder’s keepers does not apply to flotsam found by a passerby – the debris still belongs to the owners of the ship that met with the unfortunate accident that cause the flotsam.

Jetsam on the other hand is debris that was deliberately thrown from the ship into the ocean – either to lighten the ship before an accident or for some other reason. The important distinction is that it was deliberately thrown. The word is derived from the word jettison which means to throw something from a plane or a ship. Since they chose to throw the jetsam, the rule of finders keepers does apply in this case – and a passerby that comes across the jetsam can keep it.

The Shipwreck, 1772 Claude-Joseph Vernet, (1714-1780)

The two words are most often used together and have metaphorically come to mean odds and ends, or miscellaneous items –  as in –“the war refugees carried the flotsam and jetsam of their life on their backs as they walked across the continent searching for a safe haven.”

(Images courtesy, NGA DC, Portland Museum of Art, National Museuem of Norway, & Tate Gallery UK).

Damocles, Gordium, & Sisyphus

Sometimes we hear or read a phrase that sounds like it has an interesting story behind it  – I started exploring a few such phrases that have their origins in Greek mythology.

Richard Westall, The Sword of Damocles 1812

The Sword of Damocles – this means that while a rich and powerful person enjoys all the benefits and riches that come with being in that position, they also have to deal with the threats that come along  with it and live in fear because of those threats. The term originates from a story by Cicero  – Dionysius was the tyrant of  Syracuse and had a courtier named Damocles whose job was to constantly flatter Dionysius. One day Damocles made a comment along the lines of how much he envied Dionysius his rich and powerful position. So Dionysius gave him his throne to experience the riches and the power, but at the same time suspended a sword with a horsehair over Damocles’ head. Damocles was unable to enjoy any of the luxuries because he was terrified of that sword over his head, and begged Dionysius to let him become a courtier again.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot 1718-19

Cutting the Gordian Knot – this means to solve a very complex or involved problem with a bold and swift action. The story behind it is that in 333 BCE Alexander the Great was marching through Anatolia and reached Gordium where he was shown an ancient chariot with a knot tied to its yoke. Anyone who could untie the knot would become ruler of Asia. Alexander – the great warrior – swiftly sliced through the knot with his sword – thereby giving rise to the phrase “cutting the Gordian Knot.”  

Titian, Sisyphus, 1548-49

Sisyphean Task – this is a pointless and unrewarding task that never ends. The origin is the Greek mythology of King Sisyphus of Ephyra who was always offending the Gods with his clever tricks and by cheating death with these tricks. He was punished by Pluto and sent to the underworld where he was forced to push a huge boulder up a hill. Not only was this a difficult task, it was also endless because as soon as the boulder reached the top of the hill it would roll off to the other side and Sisyphus would have to start the task all over again – and ever since then a pointless, endless task is known as a Sisyphean task.

Blue-Backed Speller

Before he wrote the dictionary, Webster wrote the book largely responsible for American pronunciation and spelling – the bestselling Blue-Backed Speller.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758 and came of age during the American Revolution. He went to Yale from 1774 to 1778, and became a teacher. It was then that he realized that American education system was too dependent on England and English books, and needed to be updated. He wanted to free American English from the pedantry of English forms and traditions, and in 1783 he wrote A Grammatical Institute of the English Language which became known as the “Blue-Backed Speller” – because of its blue binding.

Towards the end of the 18th and the early part of the 19th century the Blue-Backed Speller was sold in general stores for 14 cents a copy. Over the next 100 years it sold 60 million copies – more than any other book in the American history with the exception of the bible, and became one of the most influential books in the history of the English Language.

An 18th Century school in Winchester, MA

The words and sentences in the book were repeated over and over in classrooms across the fledgling nation – and this repetition of the words over time changed the way Americans sounded out and pronounced the words. With this book Webster made sure Americans spoke words in a way that removed the sounds of the clipped vowels of the English aristocracy whose influence he wanted to remove from everything American. It was all part of a larger cultural transformation that freed America from an English mindset.  

Edward Lamson Henry, A Country School, 1840

It was also from this book that America learnt how to spell in a standardized way across the country. Webster tried to remove all unnecessary letters and illogical spellings from American English – hence the dropping of the letter U from American honor, color etc. He also removed all unnecessary double letters – hence traveler and not traveller, wagon and not the English waggon. He simplified spelling – changing RE to ER as in theater and center, and replaced the C with an S as in defense, gaol became jail, plough became plow, and axe became ax.    

With this book, America also managed to keep English pure and unchanged  – even after 200 years Americans used words that had since dropped from the English language  – the best example is the word fall which England used in the 16th and 17th century but later dropped for the word autumn (which has a French origin). Americans continue to use Chaucer’s “I gesse” unknowingly each time they say “I guess.”

Webster took the American Revolution into the cultural world and the realm of language and literature. With this book he not only shaped the American identity, but managed to unify a linguistically and ethnically diverse nation. At the same time with the Blue-Backed Speller, America, particularly its East Coast, claimed the future of English and became its fiercest guardian.

(Source: YouTube – The History of the English Language, Images Courtesy – noahwebster.org).

Amphora – yes the @ sign has a name

The symbol @ is so commonly used today that most of us don’t even notice it. I’ve heard it being referred to as “at the rate of” and I didn’t think that that was its actual name. Which got me wondering on what its real name was, and how did it end up in our email addresses.

The origin of the symbol again goes back to the ingenious medieval scribes looking to make their job of scribing easier by finding shortcuts.  They may have used the symbol for the Latin word “ad” which means toward. It’s first known use though is where it was used to represent the words “each at” and the e and a being joined together to form the symbol. 

Ancient clay jars called Amphoras

Its first documented use, from where it also gets its name, was in 1536 when a Florentine wine merchant Francesco Lapi used the symbol @ for units of wine sold in clay jars or Amphoras. With this its use in commerce started and merchants started to use it to tell the price of each unit of the item being purchased – 10 loaves of bread @ $1, meaning total cost of $10. Its use in this manner in commerce continued until 1971, and perhaps it was this exclusive use in commerce that made it a good option for use in emails.

An Italian Merchant uses the @ symbol in 1536 (courtesy MOMA website)

The typewriters of 1800s did not even include the symbol in their keyboards. It was not until 1971, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was looking for a way to start sending emails outside of his host environment, and into another host environment that he noticed the barely used @ key on the keyboard of his computer. He realized it was barely used which made it easier for him to choose it. He used it to separate his name from the host network name – and changed the history of the barely used Amphora.

With this decision, the @ symbol was rescued from obscurity, and a life in history books. By using it as the bridge between individual and host network names, he made it the most important part of how humans connect and interact with each other in the digital world.

He Said What ‽

Sometimes an exclamation mark just does not suffice – neither does just a question mark – the two have to be used together for full impact of the incredulity and shock expressed by the question. For those times we have the interrobang. A perfect example of when an interrobang is required is when one girlfriend says to another – “He said what‽” or when you ask your family, “Who ate the last piece of cake‽”

The interrobang was first used by advertising agency owner Martin K. Specter when he used it in a TYPEtalks magazine article in 1962. The term itself is a combination of the Latin word for a rhetorical questions interrogatio, and the printer and proofreader’s slang for the exclamation mark, bang. The Remington typewriter included the interrobang key in its typewriter in 1968 – but sadly this very useful punctuation mark did not really gain much traction after the 1960s.

Interrogati+ Bang ?!

With its balance of excitement and outrage, and the prevalence of social media in our lives, I am surprised the interrobang has not caught on more, it seems to be a match made in heaven. Perhaps the time is right for the interrobang to rise again and take its rightful place in our shockaholic world.

The 27th Alphabet

The beauty of language is that it is always changing – it molds itself to fit the needs of the times. Over the ages, as we have gone from using scribes who wrote and copied everything by hand, to the printing press, and now to word-processing tools, it is not just language – the alphabet too has changed.

The much loved and decorated ampersand is one such character that was once an alphabet and is today considered punctuation (in Unicode) and a symbol. In fact it was, for a while, the 27th alphabet of the English language.

Ampersand traces its origins to the Roman scribes.

The ampersand traces its origin – as does so much else – to Ancient Romans, specifically Ancient Roman scribes. The scribes would write in cursive in order to speed up their work and when they wrote et – Latin for “and” – they started joining the two letter together and formed the ligature &. So the e and the t – hastily written started to look like the symbol or glyph &.   

The ligature was then adopted by the printing press – in fact the Gutenberg press had 292 such glyphs. For years, the glyph & was the 27th letter of the alphabet – so when students recited the alphabet they would end with X, Y, Z and per se and – which literally translates to (the character) & by itself (is the word) and. The “and per se and” got corrupted and started to be pronounced as ampersand – and the name stuck even when it was removed from the alphabet (sometime in the mid to late 19th century).

Ampersands are most commonly used today in names of companies – AT&T, Barnes & Noble, Ben & Jerry’s, H&M are some that come to mind instantly.

Next up….. Interrobangs!!

Say Shibboleth !!

Shibboleth: Ear of Grain in ancient Hebrew

I saw the word “Shibboleth”for the first time earlier this week. When I logged out of an account, it said something along the lines of a Shibboleth logout. Which of course, got me wondering – what was that? It seemed so incongruous.

The word – which clearly sounds like a Hebrew word – has a very interesting story. In Hebrew the word Shibboleth actually means ear of grain. Some ancient Semitic tribes pronounced the word with a “sh” sound, while others pronounced it with an “s” sound, and that – believe it or not  – is the beginning of the story of how it eventually came to be part of current network security.  

When two Semitic tribes went to war during biblical times, the victors, who pronounced the “sh” sound, identified the enemy by making everyone say the word shibboleth – and those that said it with an “s” sound were found to be the enemy and – well – slaughtered.

And from there the word came to mean linguistic password – a way of speaking that is used to identify a group of people. It can also be customs, mannerisms, and ways of doing something. One example would be identifying an American from a Britisher by the way they use a fork and knife; a Britisher does not switch the fork from the left to the right hand – whereas an American switches the fork to the right hand after cutting their food. Shibboleth became a way of including and excluding people and identifying them – and I can imagine it must have also been quite useful during modern warfare too, including World War I & II.

Shibboleth has been used a lot when two neighboring countries are at war – or during a civil war – when it is difficult to distinguish between people because there are more similarities than dissimilarities. In the Lebanese Civil war of 1975, Lebanese soldiers checked to see is someone was Lebanese or Palestinian by making them say the word for tomato in Arabic. Lebanese say “banadoura,” while Palestinians say “bandoura.” With this tomayto-tomato they were able to identify the Palestinians. There are many similar wartime stories linked with this word.

It is this very ability to identify who belongs and who does not that enabled the word to lend itself to be used in reference to secure identification when a user logs into or out of a network system run by institutions such as public service organizations or universities. And that is what I recently saw when I logged out of a network.

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth exhibition at the Tate Modern in London shows cracks in the floor – symbolizing the damage cultural exclusion can cause.