The Many Names of Arum.
One of the most remarkable features of Arum is the sheer number of folk names that it has attracted. Due, no doubt, to its distinctive shape, Wild Arum has garnered more English names than any other British plant. A great many are twin names such as 'Lords and Ladies' or 'Stallions and Mares', referring to the different parts of the plant's 'flower'. In a similar vein, many are overtly sexual in their nature, such as the well-known 'Cuckoo Pint', even if that is not so obvious to us today when the original meaning of the words has faded away. Many are startlingly similar even when hailing from different parts of the country. Typically for this plant, even its scientific name is steeped in mythology and mysticism.
Arum's Scientific Naming.
The botanical name Arum maculatum
first appears as far back as 1588, when Tabernaemontanus used it in his great herbal, the Neuwe Kreuterbuch
, the illustrations of which went on to be used in Gerard's herbal of 1597. At that time, the name was used in a fairly loose fashion and didn't necessarily refer specifically to our modern Arum maculatum
. It was more commonly known, when it was specifically named at all, as Arum officinarum – or at least it was so called by Matthaeus Lobelius, the French botanist who began the first concerted attempt at botanical classification during the 1500s. In reality, the name didn't stick, but it does tell us that it was already the 'type plant' for the arum genera – the reference or starting point to which all other varieties were compared. The name and the plant as we know them did not come together until 1753, when Linnaeus formally named the plant as such in his famous Species Plantarum, which defined the format for scientific classification that is still used today.
Prior to this, arum was the generic term used by the ancient herbalists to describe many different but visually similar plants, including some now no longer classified as part of the Araceae family. It is an interestingly appropriate name for this group of plants. The word 'arum' itself is usually taken to be the anglicised version of the Greek aron, which can often be seen in the ancient herbals from Dioscorides onwards, sitting conspicuously amongst a rabble of more ribald local names. A common suggestion as to the derivation of this is that aron is derived from the Arabic word ar
meaning 'fire', presumably due to the caustic taste of the leaves of arum plants. This is commonly attributed to Prime but the earliest reference is in Anne Pratt’s book of 1855, where she writes of a ‘Professor Hooker’ who has linked the ar in arum with the ar
of Arabic and the aur of Hebrew. Professor Hook was onto something.
The Mythical Roots of Arum's Name.Ar
is far older than Arabic, however – it is an ancient root word linked to the element of fire in the sacred sense. It makes its first appearance in early Sumerian and Egyptian records and has retained its original association with fire in many languages and words since. In ancient Etruscan it is the word for divine fire, and in Egyptian it is related to the word for sacred light. Light and fire are often mythologically and linguistically linked, so it is possible that the name for this plant hails from the very deepest roots of Western culture and is linked to the sacred rather than the mundane qualities of the 'fire/light' element. Already, Arum is telling us that it is no ordinary plant.
Arum is also one of the lesser used renditions of Atum, the old Egyptian god of creation. He was later merged with Ra, who symbolised the Sun, which of course is linked to both light and fire; Arum (the God) is often depicted as a serpent. Arum is also the Hebrew word for serpent (notably the serpent in the Garden of Eden), but it also carries the linked meaning of wisdom and cleverness, and Arum the creator God was obviously no slouch when it came to creativity. The shared name is undoubtedly a coincidence, yet the plant arum has long carried a strong association with serpents and even contains poisons which are the same as those in snake venom. Arum – scratch the surface and it's a long and deep linguistic mine that beckons.
Whatever the serpentine route its scientific nomenclature has taken, the name arum made its way to the British Isles very early on indeed, for it was even used in Anglo-Saxon medical literature. In contrast, the specific of its Latin name, maculatum, simply means 'spotted' or 'marked' and identifies the British plant from the many other species found around Europe and the tropics.
A Riot of Names.
So much for speculative word play. Let's leave the ivory tower of mythology and enter the local tavern of folklore, for it is here, in the company of rustic straight-talking and pagan insight, that we meet the so-called common names that have given this plant one of its many claims to fame. They're a rough and ready lot, it's true; in contrast to scientific naming, which seeks to weed out ambiguity and create a certainty of specificity, the common names are a riot of individuality and regional creativity, of 'tell it like it is' and bawdy sexuality; and, as with any crowd of well-natured reprobates, political satire. They sing out a verbal record of our own history as a nation and culture. The dictates of fashion, the rise of industries, the influence (and ridicule) of the church and our changing social norms are all reflected in the names Arum has inspired. Few if any plants have acted as such cultural reflectors, yet Arum seems continually to draw out and inspire our creativity for naming.
The hooded green cowl embracing the upright red poker has such obvious sexual symbolism that it would be remarkable if the plant had not garnered such a collection of salacious titles. Pintle, Pint and Point are all derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for penis, Cuckoo from cucu, meaning lively (in a phallic sense), Robin from the French for cock and the various canine-related names are equally obvious in their phallic reference. Stallions and Mares, Bulls and Cows as well as Lords and Ladies all allude to the plant’s male/female nature.
Some names contain a warning, such as Toad's Meat, Adder's Meat or Adder's Victuals, informing us of its worthlessness as a food plant. Other names reflect its use in industry, such as Starchwort, Portland Starch and Buckrams, echos of its use as a source of stiffening agent (an unintentionally ironic yet appropriate use for arum). The latter name seems to derive from buckram, which is a coarse fabric sized with glue and used in bookbinding. It is also related to Bukhara, an ancient town on the Silk Road which supplied exotic silks and textiles including stiffened linen. Arum was seemingly sufficiently well known to be used as a suitable substitute or, at least, for its name to be used as a marketing ploy.
Kings and Queens is said to refer to the different colours of the plant reflecting the different colours worn by royalty in Elizabethan times. The names beginning with 'Parson and ...' and 'Devil's ...' reflect a satirical view of local churchmen and the growing influence of the church's teachings, respectively. Victorian inhibitions bestowed disguised sexual references and portrayed the contemporary popular fascination with fairies. Some names show a fanciful creativity, such as the lengthy Kitty-Come-Down-the-Lane-Jump-Up-and-Kiss-Me, while others show humour such as Cobbler’s Thumb, which effectively conjures up the comparison of the red spadix with the glowing thumb of a poor cobbler freshly hit with his hammer whilst mending shoes. In all, over 100 names have been recorded, a total which must be the highest for any British plant.
That it doesn't appear to be any different in mainland Europe is illustrated by this extract from The Names of Herbes, by W. Turner (1538):
Arum is called in greke aron, in english cuckopintell, Wake robin or Rampe, in duche Psaffen bynde, in frenche, Vidchaen, the poticarie calleth it Pes vituli, serpentaria minor, luph minus, groweth in euery hedge almost in englande aboute townes in the sprynge of the yere.
Grigson, G. (1973) A Dictionary of Plant Names. From sources unknown, Grigson lists some of the counties of origin (or at least use) of many of the common names.
Prime, C. (1960) Lords and Ladies. Still the most comprehensive overall discussion of arum.http://www.grazianarchive.com/quantavolution/vol_13/firenotblown_13.htm
: An investigation of the Sacral Electrical Roots in Ancient Languages of the Mediterranean Region.