Monday, 9 December 2013

I was poking around online today for colloquial names for the Johnny Jump-up (or heart's ease, as it's commonly known in the UK), and here is a wonderful list!  Also some desultory history and a little casual theorizing!
  • love in idleness
  • butterfly flower
  • kiss me quick
  • a kiss behind the garden gate
  • three faces under one hood (also "two faces under a hood" and "little faces.")
  • varigated violet
  • bullweed
  • love lies bleeding
  • banwort, bonewort or banewort (Saxon names applied to a number of flowers, including the yellow pansy.  The OED doesn't list this name as being a synonym for the Viola tricolor, though, so take this name with a grain of salt. )
  • Pink of my John (also Pink-eyed John; the one is probably a corruption of the other)
  • garden violet
  • wild or field pansy (a common name in England)
  • heart's ease (another common English name)
  • stepmother (comes from German Steifmutterchen, "little stepmother" - I believe the Swedish and Danish names may be similarly translated.)
  • Johnny Jumper (maybe a corruption of - or the source of - Johnny Jump-up)
  • ladies' delight
  • bird's eye
  • call me to you
  • gentleman tailor
  • kiss and look up
  • tittle my fancy
  • (possibly) fairy buttons
The Viola tricolor was known as the pansy until the (I believe) nineteenth century, when the garden flower we now think of as the pansy began to be cultivated from it.  It was after this that people started to distinguish between the (cultivated) pansy and the wild or field pansy.  It's native to Europe and was introduced to the North American continent in the nineteenth century or earlier.  In the "language of flowers" it was known as the flower that represented thought (Ophelia refers to it as such in Hamlet). I don't know when the name "pansy" accrued to this flower.  Some internet sources claim that "pansy" is a corruption of the French word for thought, pensee.  The OED, however, makes no mention of this.  Instead, the OED cites the earliest use of pansy in English to about 1450, and declares that the origin of the name "heart's ease" is unclear.  (The earliest use of heart's ease in the OED comes from 1530, making "pansy" appear to predate "heart's ease."   (I don't suggest that the one actually predates the other, only that the good people who work on words for the OED haven't found an earlier use of the latter yet.)  Bonewort, banewort or banwort may be the earliest English names for the Viola tricolor, but the OED only claims that the name was used to for yellow mountain pansies, Viola lutea.  Whether the Anglo-Saxons distinguished between the two remains open for conjecture.

My completely spurious theory about the pansy/pensee connection is that it's actually a Victorian creation, not an earlier one.  While it's true that Ophelia refers to the pansy as the "flower of thought" it may be that she's obliquely referring  to its other common names, those which associate the flower with meaningless physical affection or love affairs, such as love in idleness, love lies bleeding, or kiss me quick, and thus commenting on her doomed affair with Hamlet.  Shakespeare was certainly conversant with "love in idleness," as that's the name he uses for the flower in Midsummer Night's Dream.  The Viola tricolor, furthermore, was commonly used as an ingredient in early modern love potions; Ophelia may, therefore, be referencing the flower as the flower of "thought" ironically, since Shakespeare's take on love tends towards the physical and impulsive, rather than the distant and rational.  Of course, another ironic use of the reference to a flower of thought is to consider it in relation to Ophelia's burgeoning madness, and Hamlet's sham(ish) madness.  (And, of course, "thought" is one of the play's major themes - but that's not really something to get into here!)  One could even argue that she's suggesting that Hamlet may have drugged her.

Anyway, my suspicion is that the Victorians (who were entirely gaga over the language of flowers) may have taken the line from Hamlet and poked at it a bit to make the pansy represent thought.  It's certainly much more fun to consider that line from Hamlet as being ironic commentary on vain love and madness than to take it at face value.

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