In common Spanish family names like González, Sánchez, and Rodríguez, the -ez ending originally meant ‘son of.’ The relationship is clearer in the old spelling -es, which is sometimes still used, as in the Gonzales that coexists with González. When I say that the relationship is clearer, I mean clearer to an English speaker, because that final -s is etymologically the same as the ‘s that English adds to nouns to indicate possession. In other words, Gonzales started out meaning ‘Gonzalo’s [son].’ In the case of Jiménez or Ximenes, as it used to be spelled, the original sense was therefore ‘Ximeno’s [son].’ (The x in Spanish words like this used to be pronounced the same as English sh.) Guido Gómez de Silva, who himself has one of those family names ending in -ez, notes that Ximeno may have been a Spanish rendering of the Hebrew name Shimeon or Shimon, now standardized as Simón and Simeón.
Our story continues. It so happens that there was once a Spanish apothecary by the name of J. Ximenes, in whose honor the botanical genus Ximenesia was named. Now, it may come as a surprise to people interested in language, but quite a few botanists have had a fondness for words as well as plants. On more than one occasion, a botanist has created a new genus name from an existing one by changing the old name in some fashion. That happened to Ximenesia: a botanist took its nine letters, cast aside one i, rearranged the remaining eight letters, and came out with the almost-anagram Sexmenia. Then—either for the sake of modesty, since it would be too flagrant to have a name beginning with Sex, or else to avoid confusion with the Latin sex that means ‘six’ in various words—changed the initial s to a similar-sounding z (thereby coincidentally following the s~z alternation at the end of Spanish family names). With some poetic license we can even imagine that the z represents the buzzing of bees attracted to the orange-flowered plant that has come to be called Zexmenia. Botanists and native plant aficionados in Texas, where this member of the daisy family grows, still can’t resist the thrill of calling it sex mania and sex maniac.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman