Wood on Words: Add flower power to vocabulary

Barry Wood

Among people, as in the plant world, there are early bloomers and late bloomers. And some people look good in bloomers, but some of us would look like blooming idiots.

The word “bloom” has been traced back to the Old Norse “blomi,” meaning “flowers and foliage on trees.” As I mentioned last week, it sprang from a variation of the Indo-European base that also gave us “blossom” and “flower.”

“Bloomers,” the kind that can be worn, were named for Amelia Jenks Bloomer, an American social reformer and feminist who lived from 1818 to 1894. She was a proponent of the outfit, which consisted of a short skirt and loose trousers gathered at the ankles, for girls and women. The plural “bloomers” are “baggy trousers gathered at the knee, formerly worn by girls and women for athletics” or “an undergarment somewhat like this.”

By 1859, Bloomer had stopped wearing the costume that acquired her name, but she had helped advance the cause of more practical attire for women.

As an adjective, “blooming” (as in “blooming idiots” above) is informal for “utter; complete.” According to “The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories,” “blooming” was adopted as a euphemism for “bloody,” which from the mid-18th century “until quite recently” was considered a swearword that was unprintable in England.

The “likely reason,” it says, “is that people believed mistakenly that it implied a blasphemous reference to the blood of Christ.”

“Bloomer,” short for “blooming error,” also can be slang (chiefly in British English) for “a foolish or stupid mistake.”

There are also some specific types of flowers whose names have unpleasant associations. In fact, three can be considered downright nasty:

“Pansy.” A slang term for “an effeminate man” (and even more), which Webster’s advises is “often a contemptuous term.” “American Slang” says this usage has been around since 1929.

Here’s the kicker: The word “pansy,” corrupted into such a mean and thoughtless term, comes from the French “pensee,” meaning “a thought.” Its Latin root, one I’ve written about before, is the verb “pensere” — “to ponder, weigh, hang” — from which we also get “pensive,” “pension,” “pendant” and “pendulum.” It’s also the base for “suspend,” “depend” and our revered “independence.”

“Bleeding heart.” It’s named for its “drooping, deep-pink, heart-shaped flowers.” When applied to a human being, it labels that person “as too sentimental or too liberal in dealing with social problems.”

“American Slang” offers this interesting take: “Very commonly used by the politically conservative to condemn the politically liberal,” tracing it to the 1950s “from religious pictures showing the bleeding heart of Jesus.”

So Jesus was the original “bleeding-heart liberal”? Perhaps this explanation should be taken with a grain of salt.

“Lily.” Apparently it has been a slang equivalent of “pansy” since the 1940s, according to “American Slang.”

(Incidentally, “The Lily” was also the name of a journal founded and edited by ... Amelia Jenks Bloomer.)

It also appears in the phrases “lily-livered” for “cowardly; timid,” first seen in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” and “lily-white.” That one, says Webster’s, is “often used sarcastically” for “innocent and pure; unsullied.” It also can mean “practicing discrimination against, or desegregation of, nonwhites, especially blacks.”

And there’s the sometimes misunderstood “gild the lily.” It means “to attempt vain improvements on something that is already excellent or perfect.”

To “gild,” literally, is “to overlay with a thin layer of gold.” Lilies should be gilt-free.

Contact Barry Wood at bwood@rrstar.com or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.