The Names Of Wildflowers: A Vocabulary To Treasure.

Savour the names! Jenkins is writing his response to receiving a copy of Sarah Raven’s “Wild Flowers” . But the first thing he pays attention to is the index so as to marvel at the incredible range of names applied by generations of country-folk to these plants. For

The names are, in truth, the pictures recording how country people down the ages have seen nature a mirror of their lives. Here are adder’s tongue, autumn lady’s tresses, betty-go-to- bed- at -noon, runaway jack, change-of- the- weather, codlins- and- cream and creeping jenny. Here are dodder, madder, fat-hen and ling. Here are polypody, pignut and pudding dock, sowthistles, sorrels and spurges. Here are stitchwort, woundwort, sneezewort, lousewort, mugwort and nightshade.

Simon Jenkins.

For Jenkins the names reflect the extraordinary creativity of the people who have created, made the names their own and either kept them in their own place or had them passed on to become more widely known:

Flower names can be peculiar down to individual parish….They can be vulgar, poignant and romantic. What pain yielded traveller’s foot or nipplewort? What anguish went into heartsease, love-in-a-mist, love-in-idleness and love-lies bleeding? What majesty christened grass-of-parnassus?


For students of language these names are invaluable. In the post on “The Third Realm” I quoted Leavis’ emphasising to Snow an achievement prior to the creation of the scientific edifice representing modernity; that was the development of language. Leavis knows that the specialised language of science can only be developed following the development of the common language. But the common language is not just ordinary; it demonstrates- as the range of these wildflower names shows – creativity, non-academic and often poetic, at work in the rustic communities.

Also it demonstrates what Leavis means by the “third realm”. For, before these names could become current, you needed more than the individual flair of creating an appropriate name; that appropriateness had to be recognised, savoured and passed on. A name might be offered and nudged into something slightly different as the community mind considered it. . It might stay in a particular parish, affected by dialect or it might travel further afield-who is to say. There is something wondrous about it!

Remember we looked at Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” . Curiously he mentioned our subject in passing.

An interesting illustration of this is the way in which the English flower names which were in us till very recently are being ousted by Greek ones, snap-dragon becoming antirrhinum, forget-me-not becoming myositis etc- it is hard to see any practical reason for this change: it is probably due to an instinctive turning away from the more homely word and a vague feeling that the Greek word is scientific .

George Orwell.

What Orwell noted two generations ago is very much more developed by the determination of a commercial world to globalise its products making the use of a common specialised term more favoured than a more localised name.

But the process is the same : the creatively community developed term is made to appear old-fashioned as the more specialised, “scientific-sounding” word is allowed to take over.

We need to value our common unspecialised language more with its names, its rhymes, lore and folk song.

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