You don’t have to be very sharp to recognize that Spanish cacto means the same as English cactus. Nevertheless, if Gertrude Stein, speaking of a different plant that also has showy flowers and warrants careful handling, wrote that “A rose is a rose is a rose,” people who delve into etymology and botany can say that “A cactus isn’t a cactus isn’t a cactus.” For the Romans, the word cactus referred to a cardo/cardoon, which is a thistly relative of the artichoke that people cultivate for its edible root and petioles [leaf stalks]. The Romans had taken cactus from Greek kaktos, which designated a certain prickly plant found in Sicily that is now called an alcachofa española/Spanish artichoke.

To transfer a word from an artichoke to a cardoon wasn’t much of a stretch, but how did cacto/cactus come to designate the different sort of plant we know by that name today? The answer is that Linnaeus, the great categorizer of modern botany, mistakenly believing that cacti, with their spines, are related to thistles, with their prickles, recycled the ancient thistle-related Latin word as a name for what later turned out to be an unrelated family of plants. By then the modern sense of cacto/cactus had become firmly established, and we have been stuck with—or by—it ever since.

Prickly Pear Cactus Spine Piercing Tuna 5069

The small and large spines of a prickly pear cactus.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Maria F.
    Jan 27, 2015 @ 12:18:17

    This is really interesting, as it seems similar to the Todus mexicanus case we have here in P.R. The Tody is a small bird endemic to the Greater Antilles. It was originally the Todus portorricencis, but now it’s stuck with the Todus mexicanus name simply because there two brothers who were scientists, and at the time of the naming, one brother was in Mexico. Since he was in Mexico, his brother asked him to name the Puertorican Tody. Apparently he did not document the Puertorican bird too well, so he confused the Cuban tody with the Puertorican Tody, which look extremely similar, but also have their distinctive features, and thought of a Mexican town when naming the Puertorican bird. There are no Todies in Mexico, so apparently naming, even between scientific experts, can be done in a liberal fashion and depending on the circumstances. All because he was in Mexico at the time, and confused the bird with the Cuban one, and thought “Mexicanus’ was appropriate since Mexico’s towns are similar in name to those in Cuba.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 27, 2015 @ 12:50:46

      Thanks for your story about the naming of the tody. The history is new to me, as is the bird itself, and I expect the same could be said about most readers of this column. I doubt there’ll ever be an end to such confusions, human nature being what it is.


  2. Maria F.
    Jan 27, 2015 @ 12:48:52

    This is what I googled and what apparently Stein meant about the rose (note, I had to google this as I read more encyclopedias than I read fiction):

    “When asked what she meant by the line, Stein said that in the time of Homer, or of Chaucer, “the poet could use the name of the thing and the thing was really there.” As memory took it over, the thing lost its identity, and she was trying to recover that – “I think in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”-

    See, I had to google this otherwise I would have not undetstood what she meant, although I heard it many times. It has to do with “first hand memories”, and how they remain in the unconscious? I agree with you entirely that for scientific purposes, one simply cannot go by first impressions in life, particularly with plant species that still hold so much information that is yet to be discovered.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 27, 2015 @ 12:55:17

      A few years ago I searched and turned up that same anecdote about Gertrude Stein, particularly how she thought that “in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”


  3. Maria F.
    Jan 27, 2015 @ 13:30:29

    So she is speaking about the “first impression”, and the memory


    • Maria F.
      Jan 27, 2015 @ 14:10:09

      The “100 years” phrase refers to the average lifespan of a human, and to the extent of how memory is going to retain this “quality” in the subconscious.


      • Maria F.
        Jan 27, 2015 @ 21:53:34

        Well, not really a life span, but a “period” in time during which something was believed to be a “certain way”, (for her a “century”), I think she was trying to “coin” the phrase, but rightfully so, at least according to Homer.


  4. Maria F.
    Jan 27, 2015 @ 13:32:53

    Yet, for scientific purposes is detrimental


  5. sedge808
    Jan 27, 2015 @ 19:30:22



  6. shoreacres
    Jan 30, 2015 @ 20:28:39

    Apparently, a cactus by any other name would be just as dangerous: even to itself.

    The tuna does look as though it belongs on a buffet table, toothpicked as surely as the cheddar cubes or olives.

    That’s an instructive story about Linneaus. Knowing that even the greats didn’t always get it right is somehow encouraging.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 30, 2015 @ 23:52:57

      Well said: “a cactus by any other name would be just as dangerous: even to itself.”

      Somehow I’d never thought about a toothpick here, but your conception is a good one, especially when it snags an olive or a cheddar cube (neither of which has glochids, fortunately).

      Even the greats make mistakes, that’s for sure. How could it be otherwise when exploring unfamiliar territory? It’s like taking a wrong turn when you’re driving in an unfamiliar city (or at least it used to be before navigation systems became as common as they are now).


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