Friday, October 13, 2006

Pissenlit and Dandelions

I was reading the names of crayon colors to my almost-five-year-old daughter the other night. Since starting the "early 5's" Kindergarten program (her birthday is two days before our state's K deadline), she has embraced coloring in a way my son never did. She even likes staying within the lines. But this time, she also wanted to know all of the names of the colors in Spanish and French, which Crayola thoughtfully puts on their crayons.

I was a little surprised to find that Dandelion was a crayon color apart from Yellow. It's a very pretty color, more golden and not as brash as yellow (and quite unlike the brilliant color of actual dandelions). The French name for Dandelion really surprised me, though: Pissenlit. How do you pronounce that? And how weird is it that the French word for dandelion sounds like "piss"?

Well, it's not so weird after all, since piss in French actually means pretty much the same as it does in English, and the whole word translates as "piss in bed". Turns out that an old English name for the dandelion was also "piss-a-bed." Both piss names come from its use as an herbal diuretic. Other more poetic old common names include blowball, peasant's clock, tell-time, lion's tooth, and swine's snout.

There's a lot of interesting folklore about dandelions (linked to many of the common names above). I haven't been able to convince my kids to eat the young leaves in a salad yet, but maybe next spring.

Meanwhile, if you ever want to know the word origins of pissant, piss elm (Chinese elm), and why it was ok for them to say "pisspot" but not "take a piss" on the Waltons, I recommend a search through the archives of the American Dialect Society's mailing list here. It's kind of cool that it is administered by the Linguist List of EMU and Wayne State. I had no idea such a thing existed.


rebel said...

My 9 year old was sitting with me when I read this entry. She is fascinated by colors and color names and often corrects me when I say that something is pink or purple or some other boring color. She also LOVES French, and is in her 5th year of French classes. So she was very pleased by this entry. Perhaps it was in part that I let her say piss, which is not a term we use at home.

lee woo said...

Brown nosers and asskissers have been pissing off cool people since the dawn of time. At some point, they always get their comeuppance. See the link below for more info.


spinflipdivided said...

Also of note, one French alternative to pissenlit is dent-de-lion, which is pronounced just like dandelion.

Phlai said...

To the mother of the 9-year-old who might like being allowed to say "piss" in this case ... whatever you do, don't let her find out how to say "seal" ...