Much Ado About Polish #5 – a meadow’s worth of flowers
Today I can segue quite nicely from both the fact that I mentioned “Orange” last time and also the fact that the day I started writing this was the 8th March or International Women’s Day – Międzynarodowy Dzień Kobiet, a day associated with flowers, to approach a large and interesting topic.
Recently I was walking past the main headquarters of Orange (they have a lot of buildings and some of them are old telecoms-offices no longer needed with modern infrastructure, and these are for sale. If you want to buy one please let me know and I am sure I’ll be able to wangle a commission out of it, but this is their flagship office on al. Jerozolimskie) and it looks like this:
As you see, the green space in front of the office is looking rather unkempt but the reason is clear from the information board, which explains all. This is in fact a collection of natural meadow plants which have been optimistically planted in the green space in front of the Orange building in the hope that the exhaust from the cars won’t destroy the growing plants. In fact since we practically don’t have lead that much any more and the main pollutants coming off car fuel are CO2 and NO2, there shouldn’t be much harm to plants nearby, although maybe you wouldn’t want to eat them. These are both good fertilisers and their nuisance value comes from their being greenhouse gases. They can’t both be greenhouse gases and fertilisers at the same time, of course. On a molecule-by-molecule basis it has to make up its mind if it is going up or down, and such green spaces are indeed valuable oases of carbon sinkage.
The meadow plants that can possibly be protected in spaces like this may indeed find it harder to survive in an agricultural environment. Even forage grasses for pasture tend to be planted pure having had “weeds” or “impurities” removed, and only certain species left in. These mixes are then applied to land which has been tilled. So many species of wildflower are these days just as likely to be encountered in the protected environment of a corporate HQ green space as they are miles from anywhere in a place where the cropping is intensive. Some farms do look out for this, even some large agribusinesses, but sadly some don’t. The subsidies for set-aside are not always very specific about the species you need to be protecting in order to qualify and maybe for certain types of set-aside they should be.
If not, then it’s easy to see how many of the plants we are going to talk about today will simply disappear and never come back.
Now, to focus on the linguistic side, as this blog is Much Ado About Polish and not Much Ado About Agriculture, one of the things learners will soon note about Slavic languages generally, not only Polish, is that they are very good at making names up for all manner of plants, animals, fungi, places, illnesses and other natural phenomena where many Germanic languages default to Greek and Latin, and the way they go about it tells us a lot about the deeper workings of the language. I have noted precisely the same thing in Russian and Czech, where for every plant, insect or tropical fish there is a common name in the local language. In English or German on the other hand there is a tendency to find some having a whole bunch of common names, some with one and some with none at all because people simply default to the scientific name and use that as the common name.
Those are the general principles. Another principle is that often the base word underlying the Slavic common name for a living thing will be a verbal root, whereas often in Germanic languages it will be a noun or adjective. All are possible in each of the languages, but there is more of a frequency of verbal roots in Slavic and noun roots in Germanic.
Now I thought we could look at the information board set up by Orange as an independently drawn sample. I didn’t pick them so in a sense it is like a challenge set to me also to analyse these plant names in the light of the above theoretical talk and show you some insights about how Polish word creation works and how it compares to English in this area. It may also dispel this old chestnut about English being the richest language and other languages not having as many words as we do. You hear this again and again and it really is some properly warmed-up nonsense.
Here goes, first the close-up of the board itself:
- PoppyFirst we see the well-known poppy. In Polish you have “mak polny” or “field poppy” whereby “polny” comes from “pole” meaning “field” and is at the base of the name of the Polanie, the early tribe who became the Polacy, or Poles. You could regard them as the people of the fields. Mak itself means “poppy” but often you will encounter it referring to a sweet mass of poppy seeds in sugar used in cake fillings in Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia, all of whose languages have the same word “mak” for the poppy, “mak” of that what you will.Poppies are not known here so much as a symbol of the fallen in the World Wars. Poland obtained its independence only at the end of the First World War, when the Flanders fields and their poppies became an indelible symbol of war deaths, especially as they are neophytic, and quickly settle on newly-turned earth; for example, earth dug for entrenchments or for battleside graves.Papaver rhoeas, the scientific name, is a very typical mix of Latin (Papaver means milk or food, the Latin term was also “papa” for food, and this is also a Polish slang term like “grub” and its use here may refer to the milky substance obtainable when the seed head is cut (don’t try this at home, boys and girls, at least not on some species) the term rhoeas is a Greek word for “red”. Now whereas Polish simply has “mak” or the fuller “mak polny” for this species, English has common poppy, corn poppy, corn rose, field poppy, Flanders poppy, or red poppy. Perhaps most people would just say “poppy”, and be unaware of the fact that there are numerous kinds which look similar, including the “blindeyes” or “long-headed poppy”, Papaver dubium, known in Polish (as in the “Latin”) as “the doubtful poppy” or “mak wątpliwy”, but if in doubt, check the stem. Red poppy proper has the hairy stem.If you want a key to the etymology of “mak”, the Latvian “magone” and Picardy French “mahon” suggests an older term used across Europe. Most Slavic languages have “mak” and so does Romanian, probably borrowed from Slavic. German has “Mohn” and this is also clearly derived from a “magon” style base. “Mogra” is Arabic for Jasmine and may (or may not) be cognate.Bulgarian has “polski mak” but they don’t mean “Polish poppy” – that’s their way of saying “mak polny”.The English version follows most languages including Greek to have words based around Pap… and then there are the few exceptions, such as the French coquelicot (which isn’t their remembrance flower, by the way, theirs also happens to be on this board so we will get to it) or the Spanish “amapola” just like the song which you can see me making a proper mess of here.
Polish consciousness does have a wartime memory associated with red poppies however, even if it is different to ours. A song exists “czerwone maki na Monte Cassino” which can be seen here . This refers to the Polish war dead at Monte Cassino, around one thousand people. Not a lot in comparison with the total war dead in Poland in the Second World War, but a very iconic battle which was one of the best achievements of the Poles in the war, along with breaking the Enigma Code and the resistance breaking the supply lines to the Russian front. All of these things will be the topics of future articles.
- ChicoryThe next plant around is the blue (can be pink or white, but it’s blue here) Cykoria podróżnik or Cichorium intybus. Now this is common chicory whose leaves you’ll have eaten in fancy salads without knowing what they were, and you’ll have also drunk it as a coffee substitute or flavour enhancer. It’s a good forage crop for animals too. Other than common chicory, English can refer to this as blue daisy, blue dandelion, blue sailors, blue weed, bunk, coffeeweed, cornflower, hendibeh, horseweed, ragged sailors, succory, wild bachelor’s buttons, and wild endive. On top of that people sometimes erroneously call this the cornflower, but the real cornflower is coming up and that’s the French remembrance plant I already hinted at. Cykoria in Polish, or Chicory in English come straight out of the Latin. The plant is well attested in classical literature, even appearing as early as Horace “me pascunt … cichorea” in his 31st Ode, written in 30BC. For most of us there is no need to invent a word for this. But it has travelled very well, hence the Polish term “podróżnik”, or traveller, from “droga”, road. Here the German word “Wegwarte” is similar in meaning.Most other languages including even Japanese チコリー derive from the Latin.Often the Polish name will follow the scientific name re-slavicising the Latin or Greek. That’s not the case here. If you look at the term “intybus”, which after many alternative namings the scientific community has settled on, you’ll see it has no appearance beyond being the species name for chicory. Most commentators seem to pass over the point, but if you are stubborn in your research as I have been, you’ll find someone claiming that it is a mix of Latin and Greek as a way of describing the structure of the leaf, as being cut around a tube. Well, I am not really seeing that piece of etymology myself, but for sure the observation that it seems a mix of Latin and Greek is at least justified in that you won’t find many “y”s in Latin, while the Greeks were ever wont to consider themselves “y”s.Although Chicory, unlike some of the plants in this list which we think about almost on a daily basis and others which are barely known at all, people know about chicory, but they don’t tend to know it well. The endive which is much more broadly consumed as a vegetable, was thoughout history usually Cichorium endivia and to cap it off there’s a wild one also called Cichorium pumilum. Each of these is pretty similar, and no doubt hybrids exist and certainly there are numerous cultivars, so that identification becomes a tricky business. Polish here calls endive cykoria, whether we would call it endive or chicory. So in this sense Polish tends to be a bit simpler than English.
- Bluegrass/meadow grassPoa pratensis is known in English as bluegrass, especially Kentucky bluegrass (also lending its money in America, and as a range of things such as sweet meadowgrass or common meadow grass in British usage. In the scientific name you have the Greek “Poa” of fodder and the Latin “pratensis” from the meadow. Poa is the base genus of the Poaceae, or the grasses and cereals which make up the majority of the worlds caories, spread over 12,000 species and several times that many varieties, of which only a minority of species are eaten by humans or given as fodder to animals and these species account for the majority of the varieties which are bred out from wild-tye exit versions.Poa as a genus has on its own 500 species and while English has no word for them other than grasses (which applies just as well to numerous other genera) the Poles call all the members of this genus “wiechlina” which is an old word, sounding a bit like “wiek” and “wieczny” but probably not related. the łakowa part simply translates “pratensis”.This grass is not something you’d consider at all endangered, it must be one of the most common plants on earth, and indeed if it goes too far north in the North American subcontinent it is considered invasive. It is not native to America in the first place, having been carried over by the Spanish as part of the Colombian exchange. Nevertheless, the image on this board can’t be what it says it is by any stretch of the imagination. I am still trying to work out if that’s a real plant or something which Orange’s botany consultant borrowed from the Voynich Manuscript. Probably that was supposed to be the lamb’s tongue (coming up), but if so they got the leaf-shape rather wrong.
- Meadow ClarySalvia pratensis, which in English has the common name meadow sage or meadow clary (derived from “clear-eye” – a reference to it’s former use as an ingredient in eye drops prior to the advent of industrial brands) is rendered into Polish as Szałwia łąkowa. We saw above how łąkowa means “meadow” so there’s no real need to walk over “łąkowa” again.Szałwia, like the Latin Salvia, is used for any kind of sage and as you see Polish follows the Linnaean idea of placing the descriptor after the noun, which is a natural place for Polish adjectives anyway, a huge topic to come back to in the future. The szałwia you will find used as a herb is Salvia officinalis, or medical sage, and the name in Latin Salvia, from salvere to heal, save, make whole also attests to the long history (recorded in Pliny, Galen and in the instructions for monastic gardens created by Charlesmagne), but Salvia is a very large genus with a thousand species, and most of these are not referred to with the term “Sage” in English, but rather “Salvia”, whereas it is rare for Polish not to use Szałwia as a simple default, so that we can say that in Polish, “szałwia” stands in for cases both where English uses “sage” and where we use “Salvia”. This is a common phenomenon.
- Brown knapweedThis plant is a close relative of Centaurea (not “Centaurera” as shown on the board) cyanus which is the cornflower and the French remembranc flower for similar reasons as the poppy to us, but pre-dating the poppy. The French call these bluets, and the same term is one of a series of English language terms describing the 350 or so species in the genus Centaurea, a pretty bunch of hardy flowers resembling a thistle crossed with a daisy.English has for the genus generally the terms knapweeds, bluets, centauries, starthistles, centories, and loggerheads, the last of these being a dialect word in certain parts of southern England.
The specific identification of species within this group is often not bothered with as they are rather troublesome weeds in arable crops and have no economic use themselves, although some have alkoloids which could be developed into cancer drugs potentially. They are important however in the ecosystem as a whole as they attract and support pollinating insects. And here we come on to the Centaurea jacea or brown knapweed (aka brownray knapweed) specifically – it has its very own butterfly, the knapweed fritilllary. Often we see however crosses between C. jacea and C. nigra – they may be subspecies of each other.
In Poland this mauve-coloured meadow flower is once again termed “łąkowa” or “meadow” – this time not following the Latin as jacea actually means “hyacinth” and is no doubt a reference to the colour of the flower. Certainly it is not “brown” as the English puts it, not in full flower anyway. The term “chaber” is used alone to talke about the cornflower C. cyanus and is also used to stand in for Centaurea generically.
Centaurea as a genus refers to the name given in Latin, and this is supposed to have come from a story that Hippocrates stated that the flower had been shown to man by the centaur Chiron. Whether Hippocrates himself believed that or merely regarded that as a cultural meme is anybody’s guess.
- Lamb’s tongueLamb’s tongue is just one of many names for Plantago lanceolata, also known as ribleaf, ribwort plantain, narrowleaf plantain or English plantain. It is however not only English, as the Poles also have it in abundance and use “lancetowata” as the species name to follow the Linnean form, while the general term for a plantain in Polish is “babka”, which normally refers to a small woman, like a grandmother, babcia.The image here is a grass not a plantain, so my best guess is that this was supposed to be Poa pratensis or the Kentucky bluegrass above, that they simply got them muddled up. Don’t tell them this in Kentucky. Or in KFC for that matter, thinking of which this may explain something…
Again this plant is overlooked economically and regarded as a weed these days, although a tea made from it was a popular cough medicine in the past. It is of course useful as a home to pollinating insects.
- Ragged robinOrange’s team of botanists have once again shown up their skill by getting the scientific name wrong. It is no longer Silene flos-cuculi but Lychnis flos-cuculi. Linnaeus himself placed the flower with the campions in the genus Lychnis, but the genuns Silene also has campions, and they told the Lychnis members “WE are the campions, my friend”, which persuaded some to get Lychnis members like Lychnis flos-jovis or Lychnis flos-cuculi to go over. Poland’s wikipedia is about the only one to accept this uncritically though, and Orange seems to take their side. Deutsche Telekom and BT probably follow the German and English wikipedias and go for Lychnis, while the French try to keep everyone happy and have both.The Latin and the most common forms in most European languages refer to this as the cuckoo flower, flos cuculi, although opinion is mixed on whether this is due to the timing of its flowering in May (probably not the case as many flowers come out then) and the fact that it is favoured by froghoppers and spittlebugs to lay their eggs, which they do in a protective foam known as “cuckoo spit” in most European languages. Russian has “Kukushkin” also referring to the cuckoo also, as does almost the whole European area, with the Polish “firletka poszarpana” (practically meaning “ragged campion”) being not far from the English, which uncharacteristically has only one name for the species. Why robin? Nobody seems willing to venture an opinion, and probably that mystery is lost in the depths of time.
That’s all the botanical etymology for this time. In a few weeks we’ll come back and look at some more of these.
Posted on 15/03/2019, in Linguistic Meandering, Much Ado About Polish - series, Plants and Gardens, Poland, Polish (PL) and tagged botany, etymology, false friends, Much Ado About Polish, plants, Poland, wildflowers. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.