By Group Captain Kapil Bhargava (Retd)
Flowers are beautiful and give us unstinted pleasure. Right? Wrong, if you go by the names we call them. Let us start with our national flower. If you call it padm(a), you are OK. But, address it as pankaj and you are referring to its origin born in slime. (Pankajs of the land, please excuse no slur intended. It is a beautiful name, meaning lotus).
When we were small. we found antirrhinum a difficult word to pronounce. The flower was the snap dragon. You could make its mouth move by gently pressing on its jaws. We never figured out why it was the dragon and not a more harmless puppy. The name of the flower comes from Greek to mean like the nose. The Brits at one time called it the calf’s snout!
The nasturtium is so called because it makes you wrinkle up your nose in disgust at its pungent smell. Latin is to blame for this one: nasus meaning nose and tortus to mean twisted. The mother language is also to blame for calling some beautiful flowers carnations. The name derives from carna (flesh) to carrying out a carnage. Some names are just simplifications. The dianthus is pinks even if it comes in a myriad hues. The gladiola is named after gladiolus sword like. A gladius was a small sword that gladiators used to hack each other in Roman days. This time the flower bears this stigma because of the shape of its sharp leaves.
Who is a pansy? Answer: a homosexual man or boy, or one with effeminate characteristics! How then have we named a pretty velvety flower with it? The flame of the forest never sets it on fire. That privilege is reserved for human interlopers (picnickers) and arsonists. The scourge of our lakes is the hyacinth introduced gratuitously by a royal personage during the Raj. The lady liked its flowers so much that she imported the weed into the country. She had no idea that there was nothing to control its unlimited growth. Now a beetle is being tried for the job. The name of the of the plant (and its red flowers) comes from Greek. The plant sprang from the spilt blood of Hyacinthus, a beautiful youth whom Apollo loved but killed accidentally. Those were obviously naughty times!
Probably the worst epithet is reserved for the most beautiful flowers. Orchids grow almost anywhere in the tropics but not in deserts. They come in beautiful shapes and colours. Usually their one leaf is larger than the other two. But just look at their name. It comes from the Greek orkhis due to the testicular shape of its roots. As a result, in the middle ages, Europeans thought of the orchid as an aphrodisiac.
William Shakespeare had more sensitivity to the feelings of the orchids. In Hamlet when he describes Ophelia’s drowning with flowers all round her, he refrains from mentioning them: “There with fantastic garlands did she come,/ Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,/ That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,/ But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.”
It is not only Miss Blandish who does not get orchids. Some half men meet the same cruel fate. In medical terms, orchidectomy means the surgical removal of one or both testes.