or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, April 14, 2008

Flower Power

Yesterday, the crocuses came up!*

They weren't there--at the south side of our apartment building--on Saturday, but on Sunday, there they were, the first flowers of the year, the heralds of spring. And that means it's really, truly spring! The crocuses don't show their heads until they're damned sure they won't be frozen into extinction, and crocuses always know. They don't lie!

Jim asked me where the word "crocus" comes from, and I said, "I don't know, but I'm sure it's Latin," which just goes to show that I can be wrong from time to time, like anyone else. A word that starts with a hard "c-" (and with another tucked inside, to boot) is more likely to be Greek in origin than Latin, and that in fact is the case, although it's worth noting that Latin took "crocus" from Greek "krokos", so I wasn't a hundred per cent wrong.

"Krokos", the Greeks' word for "saffron", is likely related to Arabic "kurkum", with the same meaning, and as soon as I saw that, I realized that I already knew something else. "Curcuma", obviously related to "kurkum", is the botanical grouping (the genus, as it turns out) that contains turmeric, a spice unrelated to saffron (it's related instead to ginger) but sometimes used as a most inexpensive replacement for it, not because they taste alike--they certainly don't--but because they both impart a vivid yellow-orange colour to foods.

"Saffron" itself comes from Arabic "za'faran". Saffron itself comes from a species of crocus, crocus sativus; it's made of the stigmas of the flowers.

You will have seen "sativus" before, in its feminine form, in the Latin name for marijuana, "cannabis sativa". The word comes from Latin "sativus", "sown" or "cultivated", and is found in the names of number of cultivated plants: among them "allium sativum", garlic, and "ananas sativus", a kind of pineapple. ("Ananas" is the French word for "pineapple", too.)

You will have seen "stigma" before, too, possibly as itself, possibly in the form of the word "stigmata". So what do parts of a plant have to do with marks of shame or supernatural bleeding wounds? You'd never guess. The Greek "stizein", "to prick", became in Latin "stigma", "tattoo". But not just any tattoo: a tattoo denoting a slave or a criminal. So that's the "mark of shame" sense right there. The "pricking" sense gave us the other two words: "stigmata" is pretty obvious, and botanical "stigma" refers not only to the stigmas of flowers (they're the bits that receive the pollen and carry it to the ovary) but to any opening or little scar on a plant.

*These aren't our crocuses. Jim took some pictures but I can't show them to you because the ground around the flowers is nastily littered with cigarette butts, because smokers are pigs. I mean, not necessarily all smokers--I don't want to tar them all with the same brush--but how many smokers just toss their butts on the ground when they're done? A lot of them. Most of them, probably. Is it too much to ask that they find a public ashtray--which are in short supply, I concede--or carry a tiny lidded one with them? Or toss the butt into their coffee cup or Diet Coke bottle and then throw that into the appropriate receptacle? We don't let people toss their cups and muffin wrappers and newspapers and other garbage on the ground: why should smokers have the right to do so with theirs?


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