Lion’s Teeth and 56 Leaves

While walking across the yard the other day to fetch the mail, I was struck by the abundance of clover in the lawn. I’ve seen clover my entire life, but not this kind: the leaves were as big as quarters, and they made sturdy bunches mounded higher than the budding grass.

This made me look up clover in the dictionary, where I found some interesting stuff. First, red clover is the state flower of Vermont! (It’s also the national flower of Denmark, which, being Danish, makes me smile.) Figures it would be everywhere. Second, the word derives from one that means “incessant babbling”—so I guess those red clovers have a jolly good time out there in all the hayfields around the state.

Third, you might as well stop looking for four-leaf clovers. That’s old hat. The most leaves ever found on a single stalk is not five or even seven. It is 56. Fifty six. I’m lookin’ over / a 56-leaf clover just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Now that I am an expert on Trifolium pratense (three-leaves, of a meadow), I took a closer look around the yard. I was excited to find some daffodils on one side of the driveway, a tender little cluster of them. Where the heck does that word come from? The best the dictionary can do is to say it is perhaps from Dutch de affodil, the asphodel. The reason this holds water is because the Dutch were the source of the bulbs for so long; it makes sense that the name would come from their language, even though daffodils are not asphodels.

I hope to discover a lilac somewhere I haven’t looked yet, but I’ve looked pretty much everywhere. I will miss that delicious scent. The name lilac ultimately derives from the Sanskrit for dark blue. Perhaps the speakers of Sanskrit were color blind, or perhaps they didn’t have a word for purple. Or perhaps they had dark blue lilacs.

No discussion of spring flowers would be complete without mentioning dandelions. The meaning of that word is a corruption of the French dent de lion (lion’s tooth), so-called because of the jagged edges of its leaves. As with clover, it is said to make an excellent tea, and to have medicinal value as well.

Uh oh. <<CAUTION! SEMI-WILD DIVERSION AHEAD!>> They’ll be running for the roses this Saturday in Lexington, Ky., and it’s time to dig out your julep, as in mint, which has nothing to do with tulips, as you might first suspect. It has to do with roses. In Persian, the word for rose is gul. To make rose water, a Persian speaker adds the suffix –ab, to get gul-ab.

Gulab came to mean any sweetened drink made with honey, water, and syrup. The Arabs borrowed the word and rendered it julab, which wandered through Spanish and French and became our julep. Whether or not everything’s coming up roses on Sunday, that mint julep will get you a bit closer.


2 thoughts on “Lion’s Teeth and 56 Leaves”

  1. Learning about where words come from is so much fun. I only wish I could retain the information to share at cocktail parties. If only I had one to go to.


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