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Language Fact

ETYMOLOGY OF DANDELION / PISSENLIT

The dandelion is a classic little flower belonging to the daisy family which can be found basically all over the temperate northern hemisphere. It produces that gorgeous yellow flower in spring and early summer. But we’re not here to talk about the flower, especially considering we won’t be seeing any around for a good few months, but rather the history of the word dandelion

    So here we go: is it all a big coincidence that the word “lion” is in the name somewhere? Well, no: this all started out in Latin, like most words in any of the romance languages, as “dens leonis” which literally means “Lion’s tooth”, because of its coarse and apparently toothy leaves. And this name caught around in a lot of European languages: compare Spanish diente de león, Portuguese dente-de-leão, Italian dente di leone, German Löwenzahn and even Norwegian Bokmål løvetann

    Following on from the Latin, the old French took the word and then turned it into dent de lion, and eventually through history this became dandelion in modern English. But here’s where the history of the name of this flower becomes even more wild (pun intended). Because even though we got our word for dandelion from the old French, the modern French word for dandelion has absolutely nothing to do with either teeth or lions at all (except in Swiss French where they still call it a dent-de-lion).

    The modern French for dandelion is “pissenlit” and no, it’s not a coincidence that that looks an awful lot like “piss en lit” (meaning “wet the bed”). This name is due to the dandelion leaves having diuretic qualities, and eating one might give you a good chance of wetting the bed later on. And it’s not just the French who noticed this either; in middle English this flower had the folk name “piss-a-bed”, which is pretty self-explanatory, and in Luxembourgish it’s known as a “pissblumm”, which literally means “pee flower”. Beautiful. A slightly nicer alternative folk name for it in Middle English was “tell-time” because of the custom of blowing off the seeds and having the number of puffs required to get rid of them all be a way of telling the time (e.g. 11 puffs – 11 a.m.). Who needs a watch when you can do that?

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