Monday, September 01, 2008

"Fox" is a shade of pink?
Once more, philology illuminates language and culture

In Richard Fortey's Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, I learned that the plants we call fuschias are named after an early botanist, Professor Fuchs (and "Forsythia" is named after a Mr. Forsythe).

I thought it was interesting that what is now a color name as much as a plant name (I'll bet it is now used more frequently as a color name), was a personal name, and that that personal name meant "fox." So I did a little digging in my trusty copy of Onions and elsewhere.

Leonhart Fuchs was a professor of Medicine at the Tübingen University in the 16th century. In 1703 Charles Plumier named a plant after him, the Fuchsia (the "world's most carefully spelled flower").

In Modern German, Prof. Fuch's name means "fox." In Old High German, the word for fox is fuhs. In Old Saxon vuhs, Dutch vos, and in Old English, of course, fox, all implying a West Germanic ancestor, *fuxs.

There would then be a feminine form in common Germanic, such as Old English focge, Middle Low German vohe or Old High German foha (which according to Onions, appears in German dialect as fohe). Other related words, Old Norse fóa, Gothic fauho (final vowel is long), thus a Common Germanic ancestor of fux-, arising from *puk-. This is assumed to be the basis for Sanskrit púcchas, which means "tail."

There are parallels in Russian and Polish: pukh, meaning hair or down. Onions speculates that the origin of the word may be "the tailed one."

So, if you describe a dress as being "fuschia" (to use the American spelling), you are, through a long train, connected to a furry tailed animal that looks nothing like an exotic pink plant.

And there is another weird connection between foxes and plants. Digitalis, "foxglove" goes back to Old English, foxenglofa (second o is long) and there must somehow be a deeper connection between foxes and this particular plant, because in Norwegian revbjelde, "fox-bell" is the name for the same plant. So the "fox" is the common part: you can see how the flower can look like a glove, or look like a bell, but why associate it with the fox? I wonder.

No science is more romantic or inspiring as philology, and none better illuminates the mysteries of the past.

(Marcel, maybe we can translate that into 19th-Century German...)


John Cowan said...

In one of JRRT's letters there is a discussion of hairbell vs. harebell; he says that plant names are often compounds that involve animal names.

The OED says about the secondary sense 'campanula': "This application appears to have arisen in Scotland, where the Campanula is much more abundant than the wild hyacinth. Sometimes, with reference to the slender stalk, altered to hairbell, which Lindley tried to establish in this sense, leaving harebell to its original use in sense 1 [the wild hyacinth]. Originally, in English use, ‘Blue-Bell’ was Campanula, ‘Hare-bell’ was Scilla, ‘Hair-bell’ non-existent."

Banshee said...

Foxes are magical critters. Of course they have gloves and bells. :)

Of course, it may just be that foxes and hares spend a lot of time in meadows and woods, and so do foxgloves and harebells.

Andrew said...

Is "foxglove" not a corruption of "folk's glove", ie "elves' glove"?

Unknown said...

How did fox go from being feminine to today's Der Fuchs in German?