Television? No good will come of this device. The word is half Greek and half Latin.

—C. P. Scott

Orchids, orchards, orchestras….? I sailed past an orchard this afternoon, the new apples blushing rosy, too bitter to bite, holding out their promise. And it has been some months now that I have been meaning to Do Something researchy for myself about the etymological links between orchards and orchids. I knew that the ancient Greek for testicle has given us orchid (orchis / ὄρχις), but perhaps, quite excitingly, orchard might have the same origin: about growing, fertility, swellings, even?

From such a confident stance, it takes only a mind with too much work to avoid to begin to wonder about our other orch- words. So that’s what you’re getting today: sorry. No fancy cod-philosophising, no mooning (metaphorically) at the clouds (hello sky, hello, trees, just like the weedy and despised Fotherington Thomas). No, this is just some utter imp-indulgence; the linguistic equivalent of a horse rolling in mud and hay…

Now, the admirable online etymological dictionary says we get orchard from Old English’s wort (fruit) and geard (garden/yard). There’s also a link to hortus in ancient Greek (horiatiki in modern Gk is the green veg on your plate!) Hmmm; I want testicles (so to speak, and definitely not on my plate). Am I alone in wanting a neat link? Some more hunting reveals that I was so off-course: the lovely orkheisthai is ancient Greek verb ‘to dance’. (Did you know that in modern Italian, ‘to dance’ is ballare, whence we get, I assume – but we can see my forensic linguistics is rubbish – ballet?) An orchesography is a tretise upon dancing; an orchestrion is a mechanical musical instrument, resembling a barrel organ. But, huzzah, kalloo kalay! – orchialgia is testicular pain! Strangely, I don’t feel any better for finding that out.

A far funnier tale comes from a chum of yore. Picture if you will a well-to-do family, playing Trivial Pursuit after dinner.

“What – ” begins mama imperiously, “-was the name of the Roman Emperor who built a wall between England and Scotland?”

“Well,” chime the eager-to-please children, “that’s easy. Hadrian, of course!”

“Oh, no!” exclaims the matriarch as she turns over the card with rather too fast a flourish,  reading the wrong answer but with her very best Greek pronunciation. “It was Testicles!”

PS – thanks to our ovular / orchistular Humpty for the post’s title…no; don’t tempt me. I’m finished. Over. Kaput. Bye. Bye. Going now. Going….


The signifier is not the signified

– Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

The Imp – when she’s not imping – has a nursery-rhyme name; so, in fact, does her lover. Her sister’s has a Z in it and her father’s siblings’ names almost all (it’s a large clan) sound exciting and Celtic-poetical; and they’re all such gifts. What am I on about?

Ferdinand de Saussure was a very important linguist – he came up with a couple of things. Bear with me. Firstly, separating the synchronic and diachronic elements of (verbal) meaning, ie, the various different meanings a word has right now, as opposed to its etymological, historical development of meaning over time. This observation gradually disabused society (and leafy acedeme) of what’s known as the “etymological fallacy” – the idea that the older version of a word is the “true” one. Just think of Col. Bufton-Tufton (Ret’d.) who writes regularly to The Telegraph along these lines:


Your correspondent incorrectly used the adjective “sophisticated” to describe the elegant surroundings of the Beefeater’s Harim in Lower Ranja-Ullapool (“What I did in my summer holidays”,30th February).

You must surely be aware that this is the incorrect use of “sophisticated” – unless I failed to register the use of sophistry and a cheating, spoilt and sullied nature in our own tour guide when Mrs Bufton-Tufton and I last soujourned in Lower Ranja-Ullapool.


Secondly, but linked, he challenged the rarely-acknowledged, but very potent, notion that the word basically IS the thing; that there is some intrinsic link between a word and the thing it represents (respectively, the signifier and the signified).

The idea, hitherto, had been that as everything had been named in the Garden of Eden (ahem), the original name of something must be right, must be intrinsically (and, I suppose, sacredly) linked to that object. He said, simply, that names are completely arbitrary; as are any notional associations you may make between words (passion with rose, to cite another studier of language, Roland Barthes.) – they’re not “real” links. Another signifier (word) would do just as well.

Now, we risk running off into neuro-linguistics (why do cultures / languages choose particular new words to represent certain objects / notions? And have you noticed that the words for Big Philosophical Concepts in English are still linguistically Latinate, ie, they are very little changed – which is usually because they’re not much used….), but we won’t. No. Not today, anyhoo.

The reason I wanted to splash around in this one is that I think we do – no matter what common sense & Ferdie d S tell us – draw a near-superstitious link between a person’s name and that person. Just think how carefully parents choose their children’s names; authors’ their characters’; and perhaps what judgements you make of someone based on their first name before you meet them. We may not mean to, but we do. Think of the children who make up new names for themselves, to match their fantasy of themselves – and the pop stars who make it a reality.

So – even if first names are completely arbitrary, there is something powerfully resonant about them for most of us (ask a practising spell-maker what they think of the power of words…). Could it be that Saussure was not entirely right, then?

What’s in a name? Perhaps more than we dare to dream….