April 10, 2013

Case File #013.04.10: DANDELION

The modern French word for dandelion is pissenlit, which is formed from two words that, when taken together as a phrase, translate as “piss the bed.” This literal meaning may be a reference to the dandelion flower's urine-like color, though some linguists and folklorists believe that it alludes to an old wives' tale about the correlation between the eating of dandelions and involuntary nocturnal urination. But this is a moot point for us English speakers, because our word dandelion evolved from an older French term that alluded to a different (and far more awesome) feature of the weed's yellow flower: its fang-shaped petals. The Middle French moniker for a dandelion, dent de lion, came by way of the Medieval Latin dens leonis, and both terms literally translate as “lion's tooth.” Middle English borrowed the Middle French circa 1375, though the spelling was altered to dent-de-lyon. Barely fifty years later, the spelling was Anglicized to dandelyon, and by the time Early Modern English rolled around, the y had been ditched in favor of the original i. Now, with all that in mind, which do you think is better—French, or English? Or let me put it another way: would you want to tell your gardener that a bunch of bed wetters have popped up in your yard, or would you rather say your lawn has a bad case of lions' teeth?

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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