Wolf feet and golden leeks

By | August 26, 2013
Photograph of polished rhodochrosite.

Rhodochrosite specimen at La Plata Museum in Argentina. This lovely mineral shares a Greek root with visual purple (rhodopsin) and the rhododendron. ©Leandro Kibisz under a Creative Commons license.

Sometimes it’s fun just to see what you can figure out about something by knowing the Latin or Greek roots of its name. This is also a great way to spot connections between very different things. I was delighted, for example, to find out that the name of the rhododendron has a charming etymology. The rhodo part comes from a Greek word meaning rose or rosy. You can see this root in the name rhodopsin, the pigment in the eye that is sensitive to red light. (You may also have heard it called visual purple.) There’s also a beautiful pinkish stone called rhodochrosite. The dendron part is from a Greek root meaning tree. Thus we also have dendrite, a branch extending from a nerve cell in the brain. Put it together, and you have rosy tree, a pleasing name for this flowering shrub.

Or consider the chrysanthemum. The chrys part is from a Greek root chrysos, meaning golden, and anthemum comes from the Greek anthemon, which means flower: golden flower. Chrysos also contributed to the names of the minerals chrysolite (golden stone) and chrysoprase (which translates literally as golden leek). Chrysoprase is a greenish mineral, but the word was formerly used to refer to a yellowish-green gemstone. We also see chrysos in chrysalis, the golden case surrounding a pupa.

Photograph of club moss Diphasiastrum digitatum.

Diphasiastrum digitatum, formerly known as Lycopodium digitatum. You can sort of see clubs (wee clubs, useful perhaps to belligerent spiders) or long-fingered paws (that’s digitatum as in digits, or fingers). ©Patrick Alexander under a Creative Commons license.

Years ago, I was hiking with my younger son when we spotted a Lycopodium, or club moss. I thought I recognized some roots in the name Lycopodium, so I spelled it out for myself. I guessed that the lyco part is related to the Greek word for wolf, and the pod part is related to the Greek word for foot. “Wolf foot?” I said to Patrick, puzzled. It turns out that the names club moss and Lycopodium both come from the way this plant resembles other things: a club or a wolf’s paw, respectively. The genus Lycopodium has been split up, and the species pictured below, Lycopodium digitatum, has since been reclassified as Diphasiastrum digitatum.1

Several other plant names feature the lyco root, including a genus of grasses called Lycurus (the common name is wolfstail) and a genus of plants called Lycopus (a variant on wolf foot; cf. octopus, named for its eight feet). It also appears in lycanthropy, which refers to the wolf-man of folklore. The pod root also appears in arthropod; arthropods, that is, crustaceans and insects, have jointed appendages. At the risk of taking this thing too far, I will point out that you also see arth in arthritis, an inflammation of the joints, and arthroscopic surgery, which can be performed on any joint but is often done on the knee.

This game could go on indefinitely. There’s pachysandra, which has thick (pachy, from a Greek word) stamens (the male part of the flower, from the Latin root androus, meaning male). Maybe your mind has already jumped to the elephant, or pachyderm, with its thick skin. The horsetail fern is also called Equisetum, from the words for horse and bristle. I will leave it there for now, but we will be coming back to this sort of thing many times in the future.

1 I owe Patrick a debt of gratitude not only for introducing me to Lycopodium but for keeping me up to date on its current classification and suggesting several other wolf-related plant names.

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