Stories behind Words: dandelionPosted by Karen Richardson on April 24, 2013
While not having one specific influence on the way I think or work, the word (and plant) dandelion is one that has accompanied me all my life.
When I was small, my grandmother taught me and my sister how to tell the time by blowing the seeds of a dandelion clock. Although the method was not very scientific, it was enough fun for us to make it want to work. So, instead of counting the amount of puffs it took to blow all the seeds away (which was how we were supposed to do it), we varied the strengths of our puffs so that if we knew for example that it was three o’clock, we blew all the seeds off in three strong puffs. We were encouraged to do this in the field and the park, but not in our grandmother’s garden.
In my early 20s, while studying herbal medicine, I was chuffed to find out that the name dandelion comes from a mispronunciation of the French Dente de Lion, literally ‘lion’s tooth’. Look at the shape of the leaves, and it will be obvious how it got this name. Even more relevant to a budding phytotherapist, was finding out that the French give this diuretic plant another more vernacular name: pisse en lit. Where I live now, the plant’s name in the local German Swabian dialect is: Bettsoicherle. Both of these folk-names mean the same thing in English, and that is ‘wet the bed’. Be aware of this next time you drink a pot of dandelion tea before bedtime!
These days, as a garden-owner, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with dandelions. On the one hand, when they appear in bright abundance, they herald the beginning of summer; on the other hand, if we don’t keep them under control, their incredible root system and seeds will enable them to take over the garden in a very short time. So we dig some dandelions out, we leave some in to flower, but no one is allowed, at least within the boundaries of the garden, to blow their pretty fluffy seeds off the top of the stalk and tell the time with a dandelion clock.
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About Karen Richardson
Karen Richardson is a freelance teacher, teacher-trainer, and ELT materials writer based in Germany, who (amongst other things) writes the Guardian Weekly and Business Spotlight news lessons on www.onestopenglish.com.
I enjoyed your post on dandelion. I grew up and still live in Newfoundland, Canada. As a child we always called a dandelion a “piss a bed”. Prior to the mid 1700’s France occupied much of the area of Newfoundland where I grew up and many of the place names are still French. It was only as an adult that I connected the name piss a bed to its French origins.
The ‘lion’s tooth’ (its appearance) and ‘piss in bed’ (its function) names for this plant are two competing – or, who knows, maybe symbiotic – root systems that crop up in various languages.
The ‘dent de lion’ image flourishes, for example, in Spanish (diente de león), Italian (dente di leone), German (Löwenzahn) and Norwegian (løvetann). In French, though, it’s withered and been supplanted by ‘pissenlit’ (so much for French sophistication!) while other languages have tried to prune, or even weed out or eradicate this latter image, though it nevertheless clings on, for example in Karen’s German dialect example and in ‘pissabed’, which is a folk name in Britain as well as Newfoundland (thanks, Frank). Perhaps the duality of the noble (lion’s tooth, the king of the jungle’s dentures) and the lowly (piss in bed) reflects an ambivalent attitude towards the dandelion, the love-hate relationship that Karen describes.
Elsewhere, other images have propagated themselves as names for the dandelion – e.g. Polish ‘mlecz’ (cf. ‘mleko’ = ‘milk’, a reference to the milky liquid that seeps from the stems of the flowers after you’ve picked them), Swedish ‘maskros’ (= ‘worm rose’) and Dutch ‘paardebloem’ (= ‘horse flower’).
Delightful reminder of days gone by Karen! And thanks for pointing out the value of hanging on to some dandelions in my garden. It’s an annual battle pulling them up before they turn to seed. Very satisfying getting it just right and extracting the whole root in one go…!! Could I make tea from them myself? Do I boil the leaves or the petals? Or both? Perhaps a follow-up note on creating our own herbal teas?!