On my other blog today I said that a certain ferocious native Texan plant has benign flowers whose scent reminds me of gardenias. Now, gardenia is a word that Spanish and English share, and an English speaker is likely to think that the name comes from the fact that people like to plant this wonderfully fragrant flower in their gardens. But no, it turns out that the Swedish scientist and categorizer Linnaeus created the genus Gardenia to pay tribute to a man whose last name just happened to be Garden. We’re referring to Dr. Alexander Garden, who was born in Scotland in 1730, moved to South Carolina in 1752 to practice medicine, sided with the British during the American Revolution, returned to Britain, and died in London in 1791. We should add that in addition to practicing medicine Dr. Garden was a naturalist, and that’s why a genus of plants includes his name.
As for the English word garden, it comes from Old North French gardin, based on the simpler gart, which had passed into Old French from Frankish, a Germanic language. Where Old North French had gardin, standard French has jardin, and that’s the source of Spanish jardín. Going back even farther, we find that Germanic gart developed from the Indo-European root *gher-, which meant ‘enclosure.’ Another descendant of that root was Old English geard, which has evolved to modern English yard. So plant a gardenia in the garden in your yard and get triple etymological joy and a wonderful scent in return.
© 2013 Steven Schwartzman