Say it with flowers: floral expressions and phrases
With the opening of the annual RHS Chelsea Flower Show, visitors from all over the world will once again flock to London in their thousands to keep up with the latest gardening trends and enjoy the vibrant colours of the flowers on display. But besides their obvious visual attraction, flowers can also be of particular linguistic interest: they adorn a host of expressions in English and other languages and, in some cases, exploring the etymologies of certain flower names themselves can produce quite striking results.
Take the dandelion for instance, which seems to have gotten its name from the toothed outline of its leaves. The word came into English via the French dent de lion and literally translates to ‘lion’s tooth’. Then there’s daisy, a contraction of the Old English dæges éage, ‘day’s eye’, which alludes to the flower opening in the morning and closing at night. The name of the forget-me-not, on the other hand, was inspired by the assumption that the flower had the virtue of ensuring that those wearing it should never be forgotten by their lovers.
Beyond etymology, there’s another interesting thing to note when looking at the language of flowers: for thousands of years they’ve been assigned symbolic meanings and used for communication in various cultures. Just think about the lotus flower that in Asian traditions represents divine beauty and purity, or, to use a more recent example, the red poppy that is a symbol of remembrance of the fallen soldiers of World War I in Commonwealth nations.
It is perhaps the idea of flowers as symbols that has led to the emergence of the German expression etwas durch die Blume sagen. The literal translation being ‘to say something through the flower’, it actually means ‘to say something in a roundabout way’. In English, language can also be flowery – in a positive or negative sense – meaning ‘full of elaborate or literary words and phrases’. Conversely, to say something unverblümt (literally ‘unflowery’) in German is to talk bluntly or without disguise.
Flower symbolism is also found in the French phrase être fleur bleue, which is used to describe a person as starry-eyed or romantic. This elusive fleur bleue (‘blue flower’) is a central motif of Romanticism and was first introduced by Novalis in his fragment novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1800). It is not clear which specific flower the blue flower represents, but it is often associated with native plants like the cornflower, the chicory, or the heliotrope. As a symbol it stands for love, desire, and the striving for the unreachable.
Smell the roses: flower idioms in English and other languages
In English the rose in particular appears to hold a special significance. The English language is abundant with rose idioms that often seem to be inspired by the flower’s pleasant scent and beauty. To smell the roses is to appreciate what is often ignored. If you come out of something smelling of roses or smelling like a rose you have emerged from a difficult situation with your reputation intact. To come up roses refers to a situation that has developed in a very favourable way. Similarly, if a situation or activity is a bed of roses, it is easy or comfortable. However, this phrase is more commonly used in a negative sense, as in ‘life’s no bed of roses’.
The rose is also frequently invoked in foreign phrases. If a French person sends you packing, they actually send you on roses (‘envoyer quelqu’un sur les roses’). To find out what’s going on you’ll have to discover the pot of roses (‘découvrir le pot aux roses’). In Italian you might say someone is as fresh as a rose (‘essere fresco come una rosa’) to convey that they’re healthy and full of energy. While the phrase is the same in French (‘être frais/fraîche comme une rose’), in English it is slightly modified to be (as) fresh as a daisy.
On a more macabre note, the daisy is also the focus in the euphemism to be pushing up the daisies, which is an informal way of saying ‘to be dead and buried’. A look at other languages reveals some amusing variants of the phrase: while in French you might eat dandelions by the root (‘manger les pissenlits par la racine’), a German would view the radish from below (‘sich die Radieschen von unten ansehen’).