Image: Scotch thistle, Onopordum acanthium via wikimedia.org, © Net-breuer CC BY-SA 3.0.
I have a paper cut-out Nativity scene that comes out every year around Christmas (it’s a childhood tradition that’s stuck with me despite my lack of religious conviction to give it meaning). There’s a donkey near the manger, of course, and seeing it reminded me I’ve been meaning to mention the wonderful (?) etyomology of the Scotch thistle’s Latin name. Scotch thistle is native to Europe and western Asia, although it’s become invasive in many dryish places around the world. And it has a Latin name with a certain je-ne-sais-quoi.
Quite a while back, I wrote about the black-billed thrush, saddled with the quite unfortunate name Turdus ignobilis. It doesn’t quite mean “the ignoble turd”, but my inner 9-year-old would like it if it did. But Scotch thistle – ah, my inner 9-year-old can go to town. Scotch thistle, you see, is Onopordum acanthium. The genus name is a portmanteau of two Ancient Greek words: ónos (=donkey), and pérdo, or (=fart). And the species name is from Ancient Greek ácanthos (=thorn). Put them together, and the Scotch thistle is the donkey-fart thorn plant. My inner 9-year-old is delighted.
Who’s responsible for this? Well, Linnaeus is the authority for both names, but for the more snigger-inducing genus name, that’s only because we start our authority system with his 1753 Species Plantarum. Linnaeus gets credit for any older names he adopted there, and Onopordum is one of those; it was coined as a Latin name by Sébastien Vaillant in 1718. Vaillant was a French botanist who was interested in the sexual function of flowers and in the floristics of the Paris region. In naming Onopordum, he explained that “it is claimed that these plants induce farts in the donkeys that eat them” (my translation).
“It is claimed” – by whom, one might wonder, is it claimed? To whom is Vaillant passing the buck for his inner 9-year-old? Well, that would be Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), the Roman philosopher and naturalist who wrote the encyclopedic Natural History. That work is the only one of Pliny’s to have survived, and it’s considered one of the earliest models for the modern encyclopedia. Pliny gets to Scotch thistle in Book 27, which is concerned with plants and their medicinal uses. He informs us that “asses are said, if they have eaten onopradon [Onopordum], to break wind”, before going on to mention several uses of the plant in human medicine.
So, two thousand years of farting donkeys. My inner 9-year-old just couldn’t be happier.
© Stephen Heard December 26, 2018
By the way, if you have an 9-year-old too – or if you have a real 9-year-old in your life – check out Dani Rabaiotti, Nick Caruso, and Ethan Kozack’s book Does it Fart?. It’s pretty brilliant.
Thanks to Daniel Mead for alerting me to Onopordum acanthium , in a comment on my Turdus post. All I’ve done here is stitch together a little history.