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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Speaking with Flowers

One odd little book that has somehow made its way into my collection is called THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS, illustrated by Kate Greenaway, with no author given, a London Publisher and no date. Perhaps, I guess by the illustrations that the book originated in the Regency, although given that the paper-over cloth binding is in good condition, though the pages are yellowed, I suspected this is a 20th century reprint.

The entire book consists of two lists, and a short collection of poems in the back featuring flowers. The first is a list of flowers, from abecedary to zinnia, and their meanings. (Volubility and Missing Absent Friends) by the way. The second list is reversed--a variety of messages, followed by the proper flower to use.

But what the heck was abecedary? Never heard of it. I assumed it was either an obsolete term for some common flower, or an obscure bloom known only to Europe. So I hauled out my handy Websters Collegiate and looked it up.

According to my dictionary, which is, granted some years old, but a lot newer than the Language of Flowers, the only definitions for abecedary is a book of the alphabet, or a book in alphabetical order, or something pertaining to the alphabet, in particular the first four letters, and it is prounounced A-B-C-dary. Assuming I needed a different dictionary, I consulted one of my mother's old prize books, the dictionary that takes two people to lift. No difference.

So, desperate, I resorted to Google and found sixteen or so listings of the same bloody definition. Then I spotted one, an ask-the-expert column, where another poor soul had obviously done the same search. According to the expert, the word never appears anywhere in print in relation to flowers other than in Greenaway's book. (Which, btw, came out in 1885, and was reprinted in 1892. Apparently my little book is older than I thought.)

He suggests that the story is apocryphal and since he doesn't own a copy of the book, probably somewhere along the way, someone took the page header and accidentally added it to the list.

Nope. Got the book right here, and there it is. Interestingly, the second flower, Abatina,(fickleness)  also doesn't exist according to same expert. My guess is still what it was--that it may have been a local nickname for some ordinary blossom. Or else they were printers' typos.

The book is printed in an orangey ink, and is hard to read, also is full of those lovely draped and hatted ladies along with child-sized cherubs with wings and straw hats. Still, it has always fascinated me, partially because of the simplicity of the style compared to the complexity of the subject. So many flowers, so many meanings. This is the kind of historical research I can get lost in, to the point where I forgot where I started.

Wishing all of you Cape Jasmine and Wood Sorrel, (inspiration and joy) this spring!

*****

Cindy Spencer Pape
www.cindyspencerpape.com

9 comments:

Paris said...

Cindy,
Doesn't it drive you to distraction when you can't track down information? I'm a bit of a research geek and admit that similar problems have kept me dithering for longer than they probably should have. I just know the answer is someplace I haven't looked yet! The only suggestion I could make about that might be fun and probably waste more time than it should would be to contact some English gardening clubs. Wouldn't know where to start but when did that ever stop any of us?

Cindy Spencer Pape said...

LOL, I know, Paris! But I probably won't, unless I need it in a book sometime. :)

stanalei said...

Sounds like a book to get lost in, Cindy. But fascinating.Thanks for sharing.

Cara Marsi said...

Cool book! Intriguing words. Thanks for sharing.

jean hart stewart said...

What a treasure that little book is.What does it say when you google the word? Loved hearing about it!

R. Ann Siracusa said...

What an interesting find! I get sidetracked by interesting factoids (and particularly the origins of words) when I research because the information is so interesting.
Have a wonderful "ABECEDAY" -- oh, sorry. I meant "abecedary".

Melissa Keir said...

Now I'm jealous! I love old books. I found an old copy of Bambi which was written before I was born and love sharing them with my students to show them that books haven't really changed that much over the years!

Berengaria Brown said...

What a fascinating post, Cindy!
Berengaria

Cora Blu said...

I'm gardener and that has me so intrigued. I found an old book while on vacation. David Copperfield copyright 1934 with a study guide in the back and a map in the front. Now I'll stalk the internet for the flower book.

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