What’s in a Name? Only Everything {an Advent Post}

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There can be no manner of doubt a name is more easily remembered when its meaning is understood.      –A.J. Macself, from the Foreword, “Plant Names Simplified”

I forgot to plant my amaryllis bulb the week of All Hallow’s Eve. I wrote about the practice in my Christmas season book, how planting a crinkly, brown bulb with antenna-like roots can be a lesson in patience and waiting during the Advent and Christmas season. But I was too busy to remember. Goodness.

So, I potted the inglorious bulb the other day after soaking the accompanying ground-up coconut shreds in warm water, watching them miraculously expand and nearly overtake my 32-ounce glass measuring cup. Amaryllis duly snugged into plastic container, I pondered something while I cleaned up the mess in my sink.

What does ‘amaryllis’ mean, anyway?

I’m fond of learning the Latin for plant names, shrubs and trees. As an amateur gardener, I pride myself on the pronunciation and meaning of the various denizens of my yard and garden. And some of the names are not Latin at all, but simply named for people or a place.

–Susan Magnolia

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-Japanese Stewartia

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-Shindishojo Maple

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-Lonicera (Honeysuckle)

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Knowing various Greek or Latin morphemes, those chunks of meaning, has aided me tremendously in understanding what words like Paniculata, arum, rubrus or acer means. (I will leave you to your own sleuthing on that.)

Amaryllis. Well. I went to the bookshelf and took down my slim green volume of “Plant Names Simplified–Their Meanings and Pronunciation,” (A.T. Johnson, 1931, W.H. & L Collingridge, U.K.) No matter the book is missing pages 51-82, duly noted on the inside cover by me in July 2012. (It’s a very old book and was gifted to me when a friend found it at an antique store.) I needed only go to the beginning of this plant dictionary; I knew the A entries would all be there.

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Of the two names given to each plant, the first, which may be likened to our surname (or first name) is the generic, or group name. This can occur only once, as a group name, but the second, the specific (or species) name is only given to one plant of the same genus, as is a Christian name in a family, and may occur in many different genera. (From the Introduction).

The elegant amaryllis, I discovered, has only one name and is neither Greek nor Latin, but a “classical name after that of a shepherdess in Theocritus and Virgil, Greek and Latin poets.” I was pleased to find this entry as I’m an aspiring poet and also was taken by the fact that it is after a shepherdess. The final bloom of an amaryllis can nearly be equated with the crook of a shepherd’s staff, I suppose. And, there is the occasion of planting an amaryllis, during that season that precedes the birth of Jesus, our Shepherd.P_20181025_113708

*****

When I wrote Living the Season Well-Reclaiming Christmas, I included an amusing anecdote from our family about the time my husband messed up Jesus’ name in all the Christmas decorating.

It was Christmas Eve. Our son and his wife stayed overnight with us so we could all be together when our two young grandsons woke up the next morning. The four of us had tucked the kids (aged 4 & 6) into bed after Christmas Eve service then proceeded to turn our living room into Santa’s workshop. I don’t recall exactly what my son and daughter-in-law were building, but I’m pretty sure it was something from that big box store that begins with the letter “I.” There was a wagon to assemble as well, red planks and black wheels piled on the carpet. Our favorite Mannheim Steamroller Christmas CD was playing while we drank eggnog and noshed on Christmas cookies and sugared pecans. I was focused on filling up Christmas stockings, and my husband was tasked with rummaging through the party decorations.

“See if you can find the Happy Birthday banner,” I told him. “Then draw some block letters with JESUS on them. After you cut them out, tack them up on the end of the banner; we’ll have a Happy Birthday Jesus! sign.”

I handed him a stack of 3 x 5 colored index cards, and he got to work. This project kept him occupied and away from the flotsam and jetsam in the living room. He hates flotsam and jetsam.

A little after midnight the assembly tasks were near completion. It had been a long day and an even longer night. We were giddy from sleeplessness, nearing the all-too-familiar twilight zone of Christmas Eve and there was still work to be done. My husband suddenly exclaimed, “Look! I finished it!”

Tacked up on our dining room wall above the table, this proclamation proudly displayed, “Happy Birthday Jseus.”

“Um, Honey, it says, ‘Happy Birthday Jay Seuss.’”

Hubby was bleary-eyed and hadn’t even noticed. My son and his wife burst into laughter, then tears while we joined them. The hilarity lasted a good ten minutes; I’m so thankful I snapped a photo before my husband took the banner down and reversed the letters.

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J E S U S. Happy Birthday, Jesus.

Of course, the story has been told over and over again for years and I now have a coffee mug memorializing Jay Seuss. But we all remember whose name we were celebrating.

Jesus was given two names–Jesus (the) Christ.

I can’t help but think of that branch of Jesse, a green plant, Jesus. So again I go to the plant names book.

Generic names, being the more important, are accorded the full explanation…Specific names are treated on similar lines…. Describing a plant’s colour, form or habit.

However, if I want to find the Biblical meaning of a word, I need my trusty Strong’s Concordance. I often get lost there following word trails, chasing the Greek and Hebrew words and their meanings.

The first name is the most important. A.T. Johnson reminds us in the plant book introduction, the first name can only occur once. There is only one Jesus.

In Matthew Chapter two’s narrative, Angel Gabriel’s announcement to awestruck Joseph says, “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew’s Gospel is addressed to Jewish people, so it would make sense that he records the name “Yeshuah,” the Hebrew word meaning saved or salvation.

Again, from the plant book introduction, “The second, the specific (or species) name is only given to one plant of the same genus, as is a Christian name in a family, and may occur in many different genera. Specific names describe a “plant’s colour, form or habit.” 

Jesus’ second name is the family name or Christian name. It occurs to me that Jesus’ “form” was that of Saviour. Luke’s account in Chapter Two records another angelic announcement, “Do not be afraid. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.The Christ or Messiah is from Messias (Greek) and Mashiach (Hebrew) and both mean the anointed one.

Matthew mentions the Old Testament name, Yeshuah-Jesus. Luke gives us the New Testament rendering, Christos-Christ.

He is the Saviour, the Anointed One. There is a lot in Jesus’ name.

*****

With all my gardening and plant play I am always one to find a parallel or metaphor in the natural world. I begin to think about roots and shoots and leaves, so present in this winter season as all the leaves are off the trees in my Pacific Northwest backyard.

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I think about the name Christian, which “occurs in many different genera.” ‘Genera’ is of course the root word of generate and generations.

The generations of Jesus have continued for hundreds of years. and beginning with the first root of our family, that stump of Jesse-Jesus, will continue to grow. I am forever grateful to claim Jesus’ name as my own, and identify with the Christ, my Saviour.

The name above every other name.

The Light that is coming in the dark days of Winter.

Emmanuel–God with us.

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4 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Only Everything {an Advent Post}

  1. Dear etymology sleuth, I enjoyed your off-road travels through the terrain of language in the name of The Name. I liked learning about the shepherdess and liked even more noticing just now that the word Mary nests within Amaryllis. 🙂

    I shall happily bear your insights in mind while watering the 5 bulbs in-progress on my window sill.

    1. Jody Lee Collins says:

      Oh, my friend. Thank you for showing ME that “the word Mary nests within Amaryllis.” I can’t think of a better reason to watch for its blooms at Christmastime.
      And 5? Wow, that’s going to be quite a display!

  2. Well, how about that: amaryllis are named after a shepherdess! Appreciated your observations about the stem resembling a shepherd’s crook and the timing of the blooms coinciding with our celebration of the Shepherd’s birth. Interesting that they look similar to the white lilies we associate with Easter–only these December blooms are red, of course. That brings another question to mind: why are red and green the colors of Christmas? Something else to research, Jody!

  3. Denise Armstrong says:

    I enjoyed this Jody. Plant-play and word-play, two of my own favorite pastimes.😄 Your photography enhanced the piece well. Advent blessings! Denise

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