(photo by Mary Haber)
Everyone has heard the phrase ‘April showers bring May flowers’ and it got me to thinking about how words and phrases are recycled and repeated throughout time.
I don’t mean the dreaded-to-a-writer idea of cliches, but more about how language builds upon itself while constantly evolving. The ‘April showers bring May flowers’ idea comes from the 16th century as referenced by Ken Bolt:
“In 1557 a gentleman by the name of Thomas Tusser compiled a collection of writings he called A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry. In the April Husbandry section he wrote:
Sweet April showers
Do spring May flowers.”
Or the phrase could come from the first few lines of the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer:
“When that April with his showers soote its showers sweet
The drought of March hath piercd to the root
And bathd every vein in such liquor rootlet / liquid
Of which virtúe engendered is the flower.”
Either way, the sentiment has filtered down through time for at least five hundred years, binding not only our languages but our understanding of the world around us.
One of the things I love about being a writer is word etymology–finding our the original derivations and meanings and having that knowledge as I choose the right words for my latest novel. Shades of meaning, nuances, shifted understandings, and cultural colorations all come in to play.
A couple favorite books that deal with the subject are:
The Superior Person’s Book of Words by Peter Bowler
Are you an Anglophile? (Stout fellow!) Just stand at this springboard and leave the fields of popinjay jabber and tongue-stumped battology behind forever! Step up for big dividends in the giddy heights of superior speech. Are you a rasorial searcher after words? Are nouns your bread? Adjectives your butter? Verbs your little salad? Adverbs your house dressing? Well, then, this is the book to shiver you futtocks! Put an end to fopdoodly speech; amaze your friends, baffle your enemies, write interoffice memos to end all discussion! Peter Bowler will teach you the practical riches of saying it well with good words, neglected words, precise words for vocabular exultation. A Superior Person is not defined by income, class, or sex. A Superior Person uses Superior Speech. And, if Aristotle’s definition of art as something both entertaining and edifying is still toasted with glee, then there’s art a-chock-a-block in Mr. Bowler’s dictionary – a funny, useful, and elevating little book.
It’s absolutely hilarious and so fun to use on the unwitting…
Another favorite is A Garden of Words by Martha Barnette:
Did you know that the tulip gets its name from a kind of headwear? What’s the linguistic link between the lovely gladiolus and a fierce gladiator? A rose by any other name may smell as sweet–but why do we call it a rose?
In this charming, witty volume, Martha Barnette leads a tour through the language of the garden, stopping along the way to coax out the many secrets that flowers have to tell about history, culture, psychology, folklore, and science.
It’s an absolutely sumptuous collection of words and their derivations that sheds all new light on the English language. Plus it has flowers…brought to us by those April showers.
So stop and smell the roses (ha!) when it comes to the words we use everyday.