In my nature photography blog the other day I posted a picture of a Texas dandelion, a species that surprised some readers by its existence. That plant, Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus, is called a Texas dandelion to distinguish it from what is almost universally known in English simply as a dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, which has yellow flowers and turns into a greyish-white puffball of seeds that have a predilection for finding their way into people’s lawns.
Although the common dandelion has spread to most parts of the world, it originated in Europe. Speakers of Middle English called it dent-de-lioun, a term taken from Old French dentdelion. Spanish speakers have an advantage in being able to recognize the components as diente de león, which is in fact their name for the flower, and one that I assume was either copied from French or directly modeled on the Medieval Latin original, dens leonis ‘lion’s tooth.’
But does a dandelion really look like a lion’s tooth? The flower certainly does not, but the Medieval European imagination saw the plant’s jagged, indented leaves as resembling lion’s teeth—and note that English indent and Spanish endentar have the same Latin root for ‘tooth’ in them.
© 2012 Steven Schwartzman