Using proper names, was Question about Naked Ladies

Jim McKenney
Thu, 20 Dec 2007 15:26:32 PST
I have no problem with common names, although about the only times I use
them are when using the botanical names would lead to even more confusion or
when I'm working myself up into a poetic froth. After all, botanical names
are subject to the same kind of imprecision that common names are. The
example being used, Calla, provides one sort of example. Calla was at one
time the legitimate botanical name of what we now call Zantedeschia. 

In a concurrent posting on the Yahoo Lilium list, Diane Whitehead recently
listed the botanical names of the lilies grown by Gilbert White, the
eighteenth century diarist. Since I read White often, I was puzzled by the
list she gave: none of it sounded very familiar. So I went back to White to
see what I could find. After hitting on one or two references to lilies, I
realized what the problem was. I didn't recognize the list Diane provided
because White used only vernacular names for his lilies. Of White's
vernacular names, only one persists into modern usage with any frequency:
martagon. His name "orange lily" no doubt persists in those communities
where this species (Lilium bulbiferum) is still grown, although it is not a
common garden species in most areas. White's "white lilies" are of course
Lilium candidum - but who since Gertrude Jekyll ( whose use was no doubt
motivated by her concern of the old ways disappearing around her - unless it
was a lingering anti-Catholicism)  has called Madonna lilies "white lilies"
without qualification? 

There's another aspect to this fetish for "correctness". Do botanists own
the language? I don't think so. Do horticulturists? Hardly! Lily is an
ancient concept, and calla has been in use for hundreds of years. Who's to
say which of the many meanings of lilium in use over the millennia is the
"one and only" correct one? I sometimes think that those who don't want to
be bothered with formal botanical nomenclature must feel that they are the
victims of a bait and switch scam: things start out sociably enough in the
conversation about plants, but suddenly one participant unilaterally,
without warning or the consent of the other participants switches to
"correct" names. Isn't this a form of aggression? Of rudeness? Of
self-aggrandizement? Of condescension?  I have a simple way of dealing with
these people: I pipe up using  "correct pronunciations". Most gardeners,
horticulturists and botanists have vestigial guilt and uncertainty about
this; it's a touchy part easily bruised. 

And even if we all agree that there is one and only one meaning for a word,
what's to prevent us from using the word metaphorically? 
I don't know a botanist or horticulturist who isn't sometimes behind the
times in the sense of occasionally using a junior synonym. And I say that
because many plants have multiple botanical names. At any one time there is
generally a preferred one favored by the reigning expert; but anyone with
the long view, anyone who has observed the history of botanical names over a
long period of time, knows that there is no predicting which name will
prevail, which name botanists of the future will use. 

Some people are no better than politicians churning the rumor mill during an
election year. Get them together for a meeting and sooner or later someone
will pipe up about the latest and greatest they read about that morning in a
technical paper: as if publishing something makes it correct!

I relish the varied nuances which are expressed in the best common names.
Names like naked ladies and naked boys are hilarious. Pick up Gerard or
Parkinson (much sanitized by comparison) for a multitude of tasty, uncouth,
naughty, scandalous common names. Gerard in particular knew how to do tangy.
Who knew about abstertion?  Our gardening and humanism are much reduced by
the absence of many of these from contemporary speech. I'm forever grateful
to Tony Avent for his "domestic violence Salvia" and his many other
felicitous witticisms. We need more of this, not less. 

I find efforts to make vernacular names a mirror image of botanical
nomenclature wrong headed. I like words like "thistle" which don't correlate
precisely with any botanical taxon. 

And if you can't be witty, at least be useful and make up a common name
which is an accurate and artful translation of the Latin, Greek or whatever.
I've noticed that German sometimes does this, and once you get a bit of
vocabulary in those languages under your belt, it makes for an easy way to
continually expand and build your German, Latin and Greek comprehension in
one effort. 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7
My Virtual Maryland Garden
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin 
Webmaster Potomac Lily Society

More information about the pbs mailing list