Yesterday I finally started work on my garden, and one of the first things I did was a bit of weeding. The large crop of dandelions and other weeds in my lawn will take quite a while to remove, but in the meantime I thought I’d look at the origins of a few garden-related words.

Weed comes from the Old English word wēod (grass, herb, weed), which is related to the Old High German word wiota (fern), and probably comes from the Proto-Germanic word *weud-. The verb to weed comes from the Late Old English weodian [source].

Words for weed in other languages include: chwynnyn (Welsh), fiaile (Irish), 野草 [yěcǎo – “wild grass”] (Mandarin), mauvaise herbe (French – “bad grass”), 雑草 [zassō – “crude/miscellaneous grass”] (Japanese).

Dandelion comes from the Middle French dent de lion (lit. “lion’s tooth”), a calque translation of the Middle Latin dens leonis – the leaves are shaped a bit like lion’s teeth.

Folk names for dandelion include tell-time, which refers the practice of blowing the seeds – the number of breaths needed supposedly being the hour, and the Middle English and French names piss-a-bed and pissenlit, which refer to its diuretic properties [source].

This entry was posted in Chinese, English, Etymology, French, Irish, Japanese, Language, Latin.

15 Responses to Weeds

  1. TJ says:

    I captured a picture of Dandelion from Ireland last year beside a golf course. In Arabic I think they are called Handubá’ or Hindibá’ هندباء
    but I can’t tell what is the origin of this word. Seems it is a name related to India somehow since it begins with “Hind-“.

    The word “Hind” by the way in the classic Arabic context (and it is used as a feminine name) means a herd or group of female camels.


  2. Interestingly in Dutch we do have the verb wieden for weeding, but the word for weeds is onkruid, “unherb”.

  3. Alex Semakin says:

    The Russian for ‘weed’ – сорняк – has the same root as ‘rubbish, trash’ – сор.
    The Russian for ‘dandelion’- одуванчик – literally means ‘the one you blow on’ with a diminutive suffix.
    Incidentally, the Russian for ‘lady bug’ is божья коровка – God’s little cow. When I told this to my American friend, who is a passionate gardener by the way, he laughed like insane. 🙂 As I learned later it’s called ‘little cow’ because of some white droplets that it leaves (resembling milk)and God’s because it’s so beautiful and supposedly innocuous (which is not exactly true).

  4. Jayarava says:

    Heard this advice on how to tell weeds from valued plants on BBC Gardeners Question Time: grasp the plant lightly by the base, and give it a gentle tug… if it comes out it’s not a weed.

    @Alex. I was about to say that Ladybugs/ladybirds are noucuous only to aphids, but I checked and apparently some are phytophagous!

  5. Yenlit says:

    In Old English the dandelion was called ‘ægwyrt’ = ‘egg’+’wort’ or egg-plant as it would be in today’s English but nothing to do with the eggplant (aubergine) of Americans, Canadians and Australians?

  6. Yenlit says:

    In Turkish dandelion is karahindiba which I think means ‘dark’ (kara) + ‘chicory’ or ‘endive’ (hindiba).

  7. Andrew says:

    Piss-a-bed? Well that’s certainly an interesting one, any clue how that name came about? I’m sure the reasoning would be interesting to hear.


  8. DA says:

    More on the ladybird mentioned by Alex Semakin – the Welsh name for a ladybird also calls it a cow. Buwch goch gota = little red cow.

  9. TJ says:

    @Yenlit: Taşakkur ederim! but it’s weird that it is called “kara-” while the plant is white! I know that “kara” means black as well but I didn’t know it is used as a prefix for “dark” too.

    Anyway, seems then the Arabic term for this plant is taken from Turkish, or could be also Farsi originally. However, not completely Arabic after all.

  10. Rauli says:

    In Finnish, weeds are called “rikkaruoho” or “rikkakasvi” – “scrap grass/plant”. Dandelions are called “voikukka”, which means “butter flower”, because of the colour of the flowers.

    @Jayarava: That advice is so true 😀

    @Simon: You said Mandarin when you meant Japanese.

  11. renato says:

    Portuguese (Brail) erva daninha, in southern Brazil is “inço”

  12. Yenlit says:

    @TJ: Apparently the Turkish name for the dandelion (karahindiba) with its ‘kara’ black/dark element refers to the dark colour of the outer skin of the tap-root of the dandelion. In Welsh endive is ‘ysgall y meirch’ (the horses’ thistles) which doesn’t help much but in Latin ‘intibum’ is ‘endive’ which may have an Eastern origin so it could stem from Farsi as you mentioned or perhaps Egyptian?
    @DA: Ladybird is ‘buwch goch gota’ in Welsh meaning exactly as you said although you also see it written ‘buwch fach goch gota’ and ‘buwch fach gota’. Irish Gaelic uses the same ‘cow’ analogy like the Russian also mentioned – ladybird = ‘bóín Dé’ (God’s little cow).

  13. Tommy says:

    @Rauli, just in case you’re curious, 野草 exists in both Chinese (yecao) and Japanese (yasou), but in Japanese 野草 just means a wild field herb while 雑草 (zassou) carries more the negative meaning of a wild, uncontrolled weed. It may help to understand that 野 is a field (as in 野球 yakyuu “baseball” literally “field ball”), and 雑 forms part of 雑誌 zasshi “magazine” literally “miscellaneous issue”.

  14. TJ says:

    @Yenlit: in a thought, the word Hindiba could be indeed an Arabization of the word “Endive”. Aspirate the “E” and stress the “V” (since Arabic has no V in its alphabet) and you would end up with “h”Endi”b”e. Hendibe. Close, sort of, to Hindiba.

  15. Drabkikker says:

    Now I finally understand why dandelion isn’t pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, as I always thought would make more sense. In Dutch, they are called paardebloemen ‘horse flowers’.

    Interestingly, pissebed in Dutch does not refer to dandelions, but to woodlice, if I am correct that’s what you call them. According to Wikipedia, the origin of the term is exactly the same as in English: they, too, were believed to facilitate urinating. Don’t ask me.

    As for weed, no other word springs to mind more readily than the common designation for our most widely celebrated herb: wiet. What? It makes excellent ropes and sails and stuff.

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