The importance of being concise

Gardening beginners often wonder why so many of their elders use Greco-Latin binomial nomenclature to describe plants. While it may sound pedantic or snooty, they often have good reason. It shouldn’t be any surprise that Carolus Linnaeus, the founder of modern binomial nomenclature, was a botanist, because he would have known firsthand that depending upon common names of plants is for suckers.

You may ask “Why is it such a big deal? A carrot is a carrot is a carrot, right?” Well, not precisely. The problem with English and other living languages is that they change constantly, picking up memes and fragments from other languages, mixing and melding parts from those languages to make new words, and giving new meaning to those same terms over the years. Latin and classical Greek are static or “dead,” as nobody’s making new Latin slang terms. (The Czarina and I once made the acquaintance of a very nice waitress who was majoring in classical Greek, and she noted that the difference between the Greek she’d learned at school and normal contemporary conversational Greek today was comparable to the gap between Chaucer‘s English and what I’m belting out right now.) Different areas, people, and eras may give the same common name to plants with roughly similar features or habits, but the end results can be horrifyingly different if the “moonflower” you plant in your back yard is Ipomoea alba or Datura stramonium. The Latin never lies.

When I get scoffing expressions as to why meanings can be important, I just relate an incident that happened several years back, when the Czarina and I were at a huge antiques mall near her parents’ house. This was a converted supermarket that was just packed with interesting antiques, all mapped out into a grid and each grid square rented to a different tenant. We were near the front of the store, and passed by a booth run by two brothers. One of the brothers had brought his grandchildren out for the day, and they were helping him rearrange the booth, setting up new items and moving others so the display didn’t look stale.

At the time, we didn’t know that the term in the antiques and flea market trade for this was “fluffing”, and the person doing this was called a “fluffer”. Apparently, it’s nearly universal, as antiques storeowners in England and Australia use the term as well. Our problem, though, was that we’ve made the acquaintance of some very interesting people in our lives, so we knew a completely different meaning for “fluffer”. I’m not even going to link to a definition: just Google up “fluffer” and read the first excerpt that comes up. After you come back and you finish screaming in either horror or laughter, we’ll continue.

Got that out of your system? Good, because it only gets worse from here. As stated before, we were passing by, and we heard one of the two brothers talking about how “every shop needs a good fluffer.” The Czarina and I looked at each other with shock, not sure we’d heard what we’d heard. That’s when the other said “That’s why I brought the grandkids. They’re excellent junior fluffers.”

Squelched laughter. We could not believe what we were hearing.

“Oh, but your great-uncle here? He’s a MASTER fluffer.”

It just kept getting worse and worse. We couldn’t move, we were holding in the belly laughs, and we literally had to support each other to keep the other from falling onto displays. It was like something out of a Monty Python film, with Michael Palin playing Pontius Pilate. All they saw were two loons in leather jackets and boots, getting great amusement from a completely innocent conversation, and they were getting more and more peeved as our faces got more and more red. We finally had to excuse ourselves and staggered into the parking lot, where we laughed for a solid ten minutes.

It was the next day that we discovered the antique shop meaning of “fluffer”.

And why bring this up, you may ask? Just keep this in mind when you start wondering “Mommy, how did the Venus flytrap get its common name?”

Comments are closed.