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A Garden of Words by Martha Barnett
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A Garden of Words

by Martha Barnett

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According to Martha Barnette, in her book A Garden of Words, the “…elegant Orchid is named not for its alluring blossom but for its twin bulbs that bear a rather unnerving resemblance to testicles.” Similarly, “To the ancient Romans, the Gladius was a sword and a little sword was a Gladiolus.” And when a soldier sheathed his Gladius, he did so into a vagina. (The leaves of the Gladiolus are very sword-like, by the way, hence its name.)

Less spectacularly, the Hydrangea takes its name from two Greek words meaning “water vessel” since that’s what its flowers look like. The Hyacinth is named after the young man, in Greek mythology, of whom both Greek Gods Apollo and Zephyrus were enamored. And finally, the Clematis is derived from a Greek word meaning twig or branch.

If you are into the derivation of names, especially floral names, A Garden of Words is a treasure chest of information. Barnette starts with the flower and the derivation of its name, many times trying to relate it to its Indo-European root, sometimes successfully, to my mind and sometimes not. But if a flower’s name is a combination of words she takes both parts and expands them into many languages, including English. She comes up with many colorful words that have faded from our vocabulary. She discusses the derivation of everyday words, always relating it back to the flower of its origin.

Barnette includes poems, mythology, culture and more in this slim volume. There is a drawing of each flower discussed. I was fascinated by this book and stupidly did not make notes that I could go back to later. Oh well, maybe I’ll just have to read it again. If there are any wordsmiths out there, A Garden of Words is a pleasant diversion.

In her book, Barnette mentions another book, Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose? by Mary Durant. So, just like one word leads to another leads to another, so one book must lead to the next. I’ve just ordered a copy of Who Named the Daisy?. I can’t wait to see what it’s all about. Happy reading and happy gardening! ( )
  EdGoldberg | Sep 18, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812918487, Hardcover)

Did you know that the tulip gets its name from a kind of headwear? What's the linguistic link between the lovely gladiolus and a fierce gladiator? A rose by any other name may smell as sweet--but why do we call it a rose?

In this charming, witty volume, Martha Barnette leads a tour through the language of the garden, stopping along the way to coax out the many secrets that flowers have to tell about history, culture, psychology, folklore, and science.

"Everything in it is delightful to learn. Barnette takes us through languages and across millennia in a charming style that, starting with words describing things we eat, turns out to offer endless food for thought."
The New Yorker

"Sheer etymological garden fun...Barnette begins with the flower's name and immediately jumps off the neat garden path into the wild underbrush of mythology, history, folk tales and scientific investigation."
--Linda Yang, The New York Times Book Review

"Martha Barnette's anthology (literally, 'a gathering of flowers') is more than just a garden-variety book of word origins. With loving cultivation, the author shows how flower names yield up the fragrance and light stored from the past and tell us whence we came and who we are."
--Richard Lederer

"A Garden of Words is one to stroll through, sniffing the blossoms, admiring random artful paths and intriguing byways."
--Calvin Ahlgren, San Francisco Chronicle

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:54:38 -0400)

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