I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of dancing Daffodils;
Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.
Wordsworth’s poem refers to naturalized daffodils growing in drifts on a pastoral landscape. Once planted these bulbs have the tendency to divide rapidly from year to year, spreading from small clumps to rambling sprawls. Some sources claim that the Romans introduced daffodils to Great Britain. Concerted settlement by the Romans began in the first century AD, followed by a long “sub-Roman” period after their withdrawal in the fifth century.
The daffodil was evidently cultivated and admired in classical cultures of the Mediterranean, but not rediscovered as an ornamental by modern Europeans until the 17th century. The genus Narcissus is native to the Mediterranean, especially concentrated in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal), North Africa and the Middle East.
The botanical name is said to derive from the story of Narcissus, who by all accounts was vain enough to fall in love with his own reflection. Many wild forms of Narcissus, do have downward cast flowers and all daffodil care texts urge you to keep them moist, so finding wild daffodils bending over small bodies of water must have been a common occurrence in classical Greece. The folk tales that aged into mythology are often in the form of the “just-so stories” (as later so-called by Rudyard Kipling).
In the Roman version invented by Ovid in his Metamorphoses Narcissus is paired with Echo, a nymph who can only repeat what others say. She loves Narcissus, but is cruelly rejected by him. His vanity is explained as a lack of self-awareness; he has never seen himself and does not know how attractive he is. Then he accidentally sees his own reflection and is transfixed by its beauty. In all versions of the story he dies there in various ways. The heartbroken Echo fades away until only her voice remains. According to Ovid, it is in memory of her grief that the flower springs up in the spot where Narcissus died.
The flower obviously existed before the story was made up to explain its habit and appearance, so an existing word that was used to name the flower: narke is the Greek verb for “to make numb,” which may refer to the symptoms that arise from over-frequent handling of daffodils. The calcium oxalate crystals in their leaves causes roughening of the skin and itching. The symptoms of lycorine, an alkaloid also found in the plant, are much more dramatic.
Some sources note that the etymology of the genus name is “confused” or that there are “two possibilities” for its origin, the myth or the word. In fact, the flower name is likely from the Greek verb. In the origin story it is pretended that the flower is named for the boy, but in fact the boy was invented to “explain” the flower.
It seems that the more popular the flower, the more complex and manifold are the explanations for its names. The vernacular English name for some of the larger Narcissus is daffodil. The origins of this name are more tangled than those of the botanical name. Many sources begin with a alteration of Asphodelus, which is a different flower in the order Aspargales (while Narcissus is in the Liliales), but also native to the Mediterranean region, hence its association with the Asphodel Fields of the underworld, where souls with indifferent karmic records reside for eternity. Both Narcissus and Asphodelus are associated with death—Narcissus is supposed to be still gazing at his reflection in the River Styx—in classical cultures, and apparently in William Wordsworth’s mind.
Asphodel became corrupted in the Germanic languages to “affodell,” but there are at least three different explanations available to explain the “d” now affixed to the front of the word. The Wikipedia entry author (without attribution) links it to the Dutch article “de, while others ascribe to the French “d’,” although the French themselves refer to daffodils as jonquilles. (In the American South daffodils may generally be referred to as jonquils, as readers of Tennessee Williams know.)
The most colorful origin story for this flower name, however, comes from Suite101.com: “The old name for daffodil was ‘Affodyle’. The name Affodyle was believed to originate with the Old English ‘Affo dyle’, meaning “that which cometh early.” The ‘D’ in daffodil is believed to be derived from dropping the word ‘bastard’, leaving only the D in polite company, therefore, when spoken it was D Affodyle, which became daffodil.”
While this sounds like something that was made up in a Victorian drawing room after one too many glasses of sherry, it is pretty funny. Although Wordsworth would not have been amused.