or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Flowering Intellect

Tonight I said to Jim something which is not precisely true: "Whenever you see a plant name that ends in '-ia', like 'gardenia' or 'freesia' or 'wisteria', it's named after someone."

Not even a minute after I had said it, even though we were talking about something else, a little voice in the back of my head said, "What about 'acacia', you dolt?" Because "acacia" is clearly not named after someone: you can tell just by looking at it. (And in fact "acacia comes from Greek "akakia", from "akis", "point", because the Egyptian version known to the ancient Greeks is thorny.)

But as a general rule, it's a pretty good general rule. The gardenia is named after botanist Alexander Garden; freesia, in honour of a German physician name of Freese. Wisteria is actually named after an American professor of anatomy name of Caspar Wistar; unlucky man, to have a typographical error in his namesake!

The camellia is named after botanist Georg Kamel, and this reminded me of something I read the other day. It was a bit of trivia (in an iPod application) that went, "Camel's-hair brushes are not made of camel's hair. They were invented by a man named Mr. Camel." And I said to Jim, "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard in my life."

Camel-hair brushes nowadays probably aren't made from camel hair, but that isn't to say they never were. It doesn't have to be the rather woolly hair from their coats: it could have been their tails, or even their long eyelashes. But the idea that they would have gotten their name from their inventor is as silly as the idea that squirrel- or badger-hair brushes were similarly named after their "inventor".

Someone on the Snopes message board agrees with me; camel-hair brushes were invented a long, long time ago, in 250 B.C.E., long before there could possibly have been a Mr. Camel.


I was going to compile a list of all the plants that end in -ia and are namesakes, since nobody else seems to have, but I changed my mind. If you want to, have at it. You can start with the ones mentioned above plus zinnia, begonia, dahlia, fuchsia, magnolia, and, for good measure, euphorbia (such a pretty name, so much nicer than its other name, "spurge").


Blogger Frank said...

I remember reading in A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson that it actually was originally wistaria, but wisteria was eventually made to conform to freesia and gardenia. I think. It's been a while since I read it. But I DO know there's a story to it.

Monday, January 05, 2009 11:41:00 PM  

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