What’s in a Name?

Hyacinth Bucket (boo-KAY)

Giving flower names to girls at birth has a long history. Boys are less commonly named for plants, and then it is generally for trees (former Indiana Senator Birch Bayh comes to mind). Exceptions exist, including the rather Edwardian-sounding Eglantine, which is an old name for the sweetbriar, a variety of rose (Rosa rubiginosa or Rosa eglanteria).

On the old British television comedy Keeping Up Appearances the main character, Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced ‘boo-KAY’), has three sisters: Daisy, Violet and Rose. The personalities of each sister seemed to match the reputation of the flowers for which she was named. Daisy was a plain, straightforward woman without affectation. Violet was a bit like an African violet: fussy, difficult and somewhat fragile. Rose was flamboyant, temperamental and loud. Hyacinth’s obtuse, pretentious and entirely boorish personality jibes with her namesake’s bright colors, overpowering scent, and fleshy leaves and blooms. It is easy enough for a television screenwriter to match names and personalities, but actual parents must be either naming their child based on a flower’s beauty or perhaps based only on the beauty of the flower’s name.

Daisy Miller

In the case of Hyacinth, the female children are named for the flower, but the flower itself was named for a Greek mortal, a bosom pal of the god Zeus, who was killed when a thrown discus went a bit further than intended and split his head open. The god in his sorrow caused a flower come up where Hyacinth’s blood had spilled and the plant, which was something more like a lily than our modern hyacinth, was named for him.

The flower name “daisy” is a slurring of the original English name for it: “the day’s eye.” Daisy was apparently fairly popular as a given name in the early 20th century, but then lost favor until recently. It may be used as a nickname for Marguerite. Henry James heroine Daisy Miller of his eponymous 1878 novella is characterized by a commonness or earthiness that flies in the face of the sophisticated society that she is trying to enter in expatriate Switzerland. She is from, of all places, Schenectady, New York.

The color violet is actually named for the flower, the Latin name of which is viole, although the genus name is Viola. The stringed instrument’s name, although identical in spelling, has a different root that may be onomatopoetic. The girls – those named both Violet and Viola – are likely named for the flower and not the color or the instrument.

Holly Golightly

Some botanically-themed names are so commonplace that we hardly remember their other meaning when they are used as given names. These include Holly (associated with the fictional Holly Golightly and the actual Holly Hunter; the name Leslie means “garden of the hollies” in Gaelic); Lily (from the Anglo-Saxon word for the flower, but used in various forms throughout Europe including the much-recorded German song “Lili Marleen”); Hazel (from the Anglo-Saxon hæsel, and perhaps most firmly associated with the maid played by Shirley Booth in the 1950s television series of the same name); Cicely (the name of an herb, actress Cicely Tyson and the town in Alaska where the television show Northern Exposure took place); Dahlia (named for Swedish botanist Anders Dahl); Bethany (which means “house of figs” in Hebrew). Fuschia (named for German botanist Leonard Fuchs and the given name of the tempestuous heroine of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast); Laurel (which with both Laura, Lara and Lauren is derived from the Latin laurus, the word for the shrub that the Romans made into wreaths for victors, and Russian form of the name is enshrined in the name of the heroine of Dr. Zhivago); Clover (an Anglo-Saxon word for the ground cover, the nickname of the beloved and unfortunately benighted wife of Henry Adams and the name of one of the heroic [male] rabbits in Richard Adams’ Watership Down) and Heather (Middle English hather and a wildly popular name to give girls during the 1960s and 1970s.

Clover Adams

There are also botanically-based names that serve as both given and surnames: Barclay (which means “birch wood” in Old English); Briscoe, (which means “birch wood” in Old Norse); Delaney (associated with singer Delaney Bramlett and derived from de l’aunaie or “from the alder grove” in Norman French).

Some botanical names must be chosen for their pure sonic beauty; it is simply a pleasure to say them: Acacia, Althea, Amarantha, Azalea, Carissa, Flora, Gardenia, Jasmine, Lavender, and Zinnia.

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