What’s in a name?


 

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From nowhere, violets are suddenly everywhere –

the flower that is, not the floral females – emerging from a subterranean world their ephemeral scent signals the rebirth of spring with a fleeting embrace.
Our hills, hedge banks and woods at Ashridge are full of violets: From nowhere, they have materialised everywhere; as if from memory, they return through a whiff of sweet violet that conjures something mysterious from long ago, something ephemeral to be forgotten again when the noise of life shouts them down.
The name comes from the Old French violette and the Latin viola. Violaceous describes a colour, the innermost arc of the rainbow, but many of these flowers are mauve, purple, lilac, blue, claret, smoky or white. Violet describes a fragrance: a sweet, powdery, earthy, woody, floral odour created by ionomes in the flower. It was reckoned bad luck to pick the first violets and bring them into the house – they could also bring fleas, rain, the death of a loved one.
The British love of floral names is long established. The Edwardians took their love of flowers and elevated them to the heights of fashion in girls’ names – but it started with the Victorians. There was Violet Attlee wife of the PM Clement Attlee, and the famous Lilly Langtry, actress and mistress to the Prince of Wales.
But, before they took off as names, flowers were used as an intricate form of communication known, quite grandly, as floriography.  If a Victorian lady received flowers, she would automatically consult her floriography handbooks and dictionaries to see what messages were being sent – a white rose meant purity and violet was for modesty.
We may have had a mother or an aunt given the name violet, daisy, rose or lilly for these were the most common of floral names chosen by the working classes. As many as thirty names of flowering plants are recorded like ivy, may, pansy, marigold or primrose – more modern variants are poppy, heather, honeysuckle and fern.
The fashion for floral names coincided with the emergence of the Arts and Craft design movement at the end of the 19th century which was influenced most prominently by the imagery of nature. Disenchanted with the impersonal mechanical direction of society, and wishing to return to a more simpler life in the countryside away from the city slums they could remain in touch with nature. Abject poverty in the industrial towns gripped the lives of many – it did not cost anything to have a petal or blossom around the place.

Thanks to Paul Evans for his contribution.

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