One of my piano students gave me a bunch of lilies of the valley the other day. I had never smelled them before; my mom only had one plant, which we never picked, only looked at. Around here, though, I’ve been seeing drifts of them, so many that you just walk by and breathe in that smell that’s at once fresh and springy and reminds you (me) of a little old lady’s handkerchief drawer. I have part of the bunch sitting on my desk, where I can lean forward and smell it occasionally.
So, of course, I decided to look up the etymology of the name “lily”. This is what dictionary.com says:
O.E. lilie, from L. lilia, pl. of lilium “a lily,” cognate with Gk. leirion,both perhaps borrowed from a corrupted pronunciation of an Egyptian word. Used in O.T. to translate Heb. shoshanna and in N.T. to translate Gk. krinon. The lily of the valley translates L. lilium convallium (Vulgate), a literal rendition of the Heb. term in Song of Solomon ii.1. It apparently was applied to a particular plant (Convallaria majalis) first by 16c. Ger. herbalists.
I wish I still had access to the OED online, because that was always fun and interesting to browse through, but we’ll make do with the limited resources available on ‘normal’ dictionary websites. (The last time I checked, the OED online’s subscription for one year was $500. Southern paid for a yearly subscription.)
I also scalped some lilacs, partly from the parking lot of the Methodist church I play for, and partly from our bushes in our back yard (sshhh! don’t tell the other people I’m actually picking the flowers!) I’m not really worried — there are bushes everywhere in MN; along the highways, edging people’s yards, just everywhere. You don’t realize it till spring, but there are myriads of colors and types of lilacs all over the place. I can steal a couple to put on my table, right? Right. My kitchen smells like a florist shop — much better, by the way, than the fake scent of the lilac Yankee Candle I have. Sorry, YC, but real flowers do it a lot better! So, without further ado, here is the etymology of the word “lilac”:
1625, from Fr. lilac “shrub of genus Syringa with mauve flowers,” from Sp. lilac, from Arabic lilak, from Pers. lilak, variant of nilak “bluish,” from nil “indigo” (cf. Skt. nilah “dark blue”), of unknown origin. As a color name, attested from 1791; as a scent, from 1895.
I find it interesting that a quintessentially English/American flower would have a Sanskrit/Persian/Arabic origin to its name.
And there’s your linguistics lesson for the day. Go gather ye lilacs and lilies while ye may (with apologies to Robert Herrick).