What's in a name?
Thursday, March 15, 2012
As Shakespeare’s Juliet pined to her love, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The genus Fuchsia was named in honor of Leonard Fuchs, a renowned German physician and botanist of the sixteenth century. Fuchs, of course, is just German for fox and our fuchsia is simply Dr. Fox’s flower. As for smell, we have to be content with sight. That doesn’t seem to bother hummingbirds, after all. While some claim they can detect a very slight scent coming from blossoms in Fuchsia sec. encliandra, there is really little odor, if any. Allergy sufferers take note. Roses might make you sneeze but fuchsias certainly won’t!
For English speakers, the rather straightforward and unremarkable botanical name has developed an odd twist. We might have expected an approximate pronunciation of “fooksia” (rhymed with “booksia”) to generally follow from its namesake. Sometimes a few of the exasperatingly correct, or generally unfamiliar, will even roll it out that way. The few times that I’ve heard it pronounced in the Fuchs manner, and haven’t thought to myself, “Oh. Yeah. Right,” has been from non-English speakers who really do pronounce it that way. However, in spite of what the dictionaries say, it’s almost always called the “few-shuh.” Or the fjuːʃə for the exasperatingly correct.
Of course, we probably have the Victorians to thank for the fantastic transformation of Dr. Fox’s flower. One would suspect that the demure Victorian lip stumbled once too often on the unaccustomed rank of consonants leading to an awkward silence after an unintentional slip. Or that the delicate Victorian ear caught embarrassing hints of naughtiness when the vowel quality wasn’t pitched just right by the Under Gardener. Whichever, accuracy gave way to propriety and Lady Bracknell’s gardening circle was forever happy. “Few-shuh” it became and “few-shuh” it remains. The elided pronunciation, though, has unintentionally yielded many, many spelling errors. Fuschia, fushia, fuscia, et cetera, et cetera. I’m up to over fourteen in my collection and am still occasionally surprised when I net and pin a new one.
To avoid any hint of scandal altogether, a few Victorians dauntlessly tried to give it a more genteel sobriquet. Taking a probable cue from the Spanish pendientes de la reina or the Brazilian brinco-de-pincesa, they plucked the blossoms from the bush and hung them from their lobes as Lady’s Eardrops—as variously pluralized or hyphenated as fuchsia has spelling errors. This name seems to have secured the lead over the Spanish “Quiver Flower” (aljaba). In Chile, F. magellanica is called usually chilco, from the native Mapuche, and occasionally rendered from the related language of the Picunche, another native agricultural people living to their north in Chile's Central Valley, as thilco or tilco. But the “Flower Which Grows Near Water” was never seriously in the running as an alternate English name it seems. Mostly, Lady’s Eardrops referred to F. magellanica (Chile & Southern Argentina) or was extended by similarity or courtesy to F. coccinea (Southeastern Brazil), the scarlet fuchsia, as Scarlet Lady’s Eardrops. Or perhaps vice versa. That’s natural. There was much confusion between the two species early on, however, so it’s never entirely certain which is which in early mentions.
I suppose someone’s great-grandmother’s great-aunt was known to have favored Lady’s Eardrops over fuchsias, but this common name is not really so common. Maybe for a long time. Maybe even never. In Victorian publications, you often read “fuchsias, or lady’s eardrops” as if to encourage an unfamiliar point. A number of other flowers were also ambiguously called by that name to further confuse the unwary. In fact, the tender young heroine of a sentimental moralizing tale of 1850 distinctly goes to her heavenly reward as The Fuchsia with not a single Lady’s Eardrop in sight. In the end the fuchsia wins out. It was easy to say when properly learned, even melodious you could argue, and took half as long to get out of the mouth. Lady’s Eardrops is still habitually given as a so-called common name in any dictionary or reference.
Nice try. But it’s simply the passing of an anachronism or less from reference to reference without any real thought. Besides, there’s even a new kid on the block from China: 吊 灯 花 (diàodēnghuā) or the Hanging Lantern Flower. How festive is that for everyone, not just prim Victorian ladies.