Saturday, May 06, 2006

Cowslips and cuckoo pints

I came across a carpet of these the other day whilst walking the dog, and having my camera to hand, took a snapshot. A few years ago, these delightful little flowers, harbinger of true spring, were in danger of extincition and in fact I confess to never having seen one until recently. However, now at least, there's a field in Nottinghamshire that's positively exuberant with their blooms. Medieval folk would have been entirely familiar with them.
It makes me chuckle that the common name for this pretty little plant derives from the fact that it frequently inhabits cow fields. It used to be known as a 'cow slop' - kuhscheisse in German. That set me to thinking about our medieval ancestors and how in some ways they were much less prudish than us. Lower down the slope where I took this photo, there are masses of dandelions (also known as piss-a-beds) for their diuretic qualities. In the woods there are cuckoo pints - cuckoo penises if you happen to be Anglo Saxon. Orchids, should any be around would have been known as sweet ballocks or dogstones (dog's testicles). Should a bird now called a wheatear fly past, I should remember that it used to be known as a 'white-arse.' It's not just plants and animals that receive this treatment either. There are folk with recorded surnames such as Gildenballocks, Blakeballocs, Fartere and Wydecunthe. Hmmm...can't see those starring in polite society today no matter how appropriate. And should you happen to walk down Grape street in London, it has nothing at all to do with the fruit of the vine. In the fourteenth century it was known as Gropecontelane and had its counterparts in York, Bristol and Oxford. Of course, some Grope Lanes were a reference to how dark it was, rather than a comment on the proclivities of its denizens!

My thanks for the above enlightenment to Wordly Wise by James McDonald/Constable 1984 and The Street names of England by Adrian room/Paul Watkins 1992


Jane Henry said...

Elizabeth, you had me laughing with your mediaeval/AS names for flowers and birds. I particularly like the one for dandelion (from the French dents-de-lion, teeth of lion, I thought, but may be wrong). Etymology is fascinating stuff, and I agree, I think our ancestors were somewhat earthier then us. But those old Anglo Saxon boys in the mead hall were literally pretty close to the earth in terms of how they lived, so I guess that would make you a bit more in your face as it were!
must get that book, it sounds great! And see if I can work some of those names into my allotment book...
Looking foward to Daughters of the Grail when it's out!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Today they're called Schl├╝sselblumen (key flowers) in German. Somehow a few made into the meadow in my garden and I always wait with moving the grass until their bloom is over.

Stacia said...

I was just on Grape Street yesterday!

I have a book called "The Word Museum" that is, of course, up in the guest room where my mother is sleeping so I can't look up the author, but it's one of my faves. I love word origins and old figures of speech.

(Just ordered "The Greatest Knight" from Amazon! Can't wait for it to get here!)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Gabriele, thanks for coming by. I love the word Schl├╝sselblumen - sounds like petals rustling in the wind :-)

Thanks for ordering The Greatest Knight. Self and friend started remote viewing about half through my writing of this, and I back-tracked and adapted a few scenes in the light of what she said. The second Marshal novel The Scarlet Lion has more extensive remote viewing research.
Grape Street. I was in London at the end of April and started telling a chatty taxi driver about its origins, then decided I'd made a mistake. You can't say the 'c' word in polite company to strangers...or you can, but not a good idea! I'm sure Medieval ancestors would not have had such a problem. Chaucer certainly didn't!

Gabriele Campbell said...

BTW, forgot to mention that William Marshal has been tagged. That meme has spread on quite some blogs by now. :)