Thursday, April 26, 2012

Lipstick Latin

A lifetime ago (about 5 years), in a land far far away (California), I was an adjunct professor (Ph.D. without tenure) of Nineteenth-Century American Literature. I came to that life late, as I often do. I became a dancer later in life than most (17) and entered graduate school even later (36). For my doctorate, I had to demonstrate proficiency in two languages. French, I could test out of, but there was still the required second.  Much to my advisor’s chagrin, I chose Latin. “Latin is what you study when you're 9 or 10 and don't know any better,” sighed the Jesuit-schooled professor who had Greek as well as Latin at an even earlier age. But I had my reasons. Latin was for educated people, or so I believed. And I was still trying to believe in myself as worthy of a Ph.D. Yeah, yeah, I know. But we all have our insecurities. Just grant me the confidence-booster of a little Latin lipstick. There was another reason for my selection of a "dead language":  in-class “conversation” played no part!  I could get up in front of 300 students with the confidence of a seasoned Vegas lounge act, but answering simple questions in French in front of 20 reduced me to a mute, shuddering puddle.Since Classical Latin (as opposed to Church Latin) wasn't spoken any more, we just read and translated. Yea!  (Interesting instructional factoid:  as opposed to French, where most of our learned vocabulary dealt with food and furniture, Latin provided us the words for weapons and the body parts slashed, pierced, and or poisoned by those weapons).

There is a point here, I promise. And the point is that I'm a tiny bit of a plant geek. I really like taxonomy and the significance of naming. And that brings us to the subject for today: Lungwort! Great name. Sounds like the ugly duckling of plants. But take a look at this shade-loving beauty:

It got its name—as many plants do—from its appearance. The speckled leaves looked to early herbalists like the mottling of diseased lungs. Thus the “Lung” part of the common name and also pulmo for the Latin source of its genus Pulmonaria. “Wort” is used here and elsewhere for herbaceous plants (plants that don't have woody stems) that in earlier times were used for food or medicine. (The first written usage of wort or wyrt was circa 825—geeky or what?). Early medical practitioners believed that plants that resembled body parts could be used to treat illnesses of those same parts. This philosophy came to be known as the Doctrine of Signatures. More about that in another entry.

The 'Roy Davidson' here is a cross between Pulmonaria longifolia—narrow leaved--and Pulmonaria saccharata—sweet or containing sugar (probably for the white “sprinkles”). The pink buds and flowers that age to blue (and how cool is that!) gave rise to names like “soldiers and sailors” and “Joseph and Mary.”

And then there are those tiny hairs!  Guess that will also have to wait for another day.


  1. Great class Teach! I loves me some old languages :)

  2. Languages and Pulmonaria! Love 'em both.

  3. Great information, Emily! I've always wondered about the name.