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I am puzzled by the etymology of the word dandelion. I am aware that it is derived from the French “dent-de-lion”, meaning 'lion's tooth' (because of the jagged shape of the leaves).

What puzzles me however is

  1. why the English adopted a French word for a plant which had always existed in England (it must have been called something before it became dandelion);
  2. why the English adopted a French word for a plant which had never been called by that name by the French. The French for dandelion has always been “pissenlit” and if they have never called dandelions “dent-de-lion” why did we?
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    Do you have any evidence that the flower was never called dent-de-lion in French (as opposed to the name just becoming less popular and eventually disappearing, like piss-a-bed in English)? The corresponding Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese names are all used. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 '17 at 12:14
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    The English adopted a French name for a plant that had long existed in England because French had long existed in England. There was also a Latin cognate: OED also traces dandelion, n. to medieval Latin dens leonis. (The dandelion was known to the Romans but not by that name.) If medieval folk were calling it dens leonis in the universal language of learning at the time, that also explains the calques in several European languages. – Luke Sawczak Jul 21 '17 at 13:27
  • Interestingly, the TLFi finds pissenlit as early as the 15th century but OED's dandelion, n. has the earliest example in 1513. One wonders if pissenlit was seen as a vulgar and the more poetic name used in its stead. As the first example in the OED runs: "1565 ... Agrimony and Lyons tooth, That Chyldren call Pysbed." Evidently a calque of dens leonis had also been made in English. Perhaps both it and dent de lion were intended to replace folk names. If so, it succeeded in English but failed in French. – Luke Sawczak Jul 21 '17 at 13:33
  • I have never been happy with the suggestion that the leaves of the dandelion look like lions teeth. I think the root looks much more like a lions tooth in colour and shape. – trevor Jan 22 '18 at 16:22
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'Dandelion' is, as you correctly pointed out, from the French, 'dent-de-lioun'.

Etymonline shows:

early 15c., earlier dent-de-lioun (late 14c.), from Middle French dent de lion, literally "lion's tooth" (from its toothed leaves), translation of Medieval Latin dens leonis.

Other folk names, like tell-time refer to the custom of telling the time by blowing the white seed (the number of puffs required to blow them all off supposedly being the number of the hour), or to the plant's more authentic diuretic qualities, preserved in Middle English piss-a-bed and French pissenlit.


Looking into 'pissenlit' on a French etymology dictionary reveals:

BOT. Plante de la famille des Composées, vivace, à feuilles longues dentelées disposées en rosette, à fleurs jaunes et à petits fruits secs surmontés d'une aigrette. Synon. dent-de-lion (s.v. dent). Pissenlit officinal; feuille, fleur, graine, racine de pissenlit; salade de pissenlit; culture du pissenlit. Les feuilles radicales longues et couchées du pissenlit sont dentées, en lobes arqués et renversés, glabres et d'un beau vert. [...]

Comp. de pisse (forme du verbe pisser*), de la prép. en* et de lit*. Cette plante est ainsi nommée en raison de ses propriétés diurétiques. Fréq. abs. littér.: 77. Bbg. Schurter (H.). −Die Ausdrücke für den Löwenzahn im Gallo-romanischen. Halle, 1921 pp.8-24, 89-90, 105, 106, 110.

Which roughly translates to:

BOT. plant of the composite family, perennial, with long serrated leaves arranged in a rosette, yellow flowers and small dried fruit with a Pappus. Synon. Dandelion (s.v. tooth). Officinal dandelion; leaf, flower, seed, dandelion root; Dandelion salad; culture of the dandelion. The radical long, folded the dandelion leaves are toothed, lobes, arched and overturned, glabrous and green. [...]

Comp. piss (piss the verb form *), prep. in * and bed *. This plant is so named due to its diuretic properties. Freq. ABS. litter.: 77. BBG Schurter (H). −Die expressions as den Lowenzahn im Gallo-Roman. Halle, 1921 pp.8 - 24, 89-90, 105, 106, 110.


So apparently 'dent-de-lion' is synonymous with 'pissenlit', but didn't make mainstream usage, while England went the other way - apparently 'piss-a-bed' used to be another term for it, as Oxford shows:

Dandelion

Late 16th century: from the verb piss (because of its diuretic properties) + abed, suggested by the French name for the dandelion, pissenlit.

but we preferred to use 'dandelion' instead.1

Ultimately, both 'pissabed' and 'dandelion' are English words for the flower, and 'dent-de-lion' and 'pissenlit' are French for it as well, but the popularity seems to be swapped round, with English using dandelion and French using pissenlit.

This may be due to other European nations such as Italy using related etymology (pisacan).


1: Just speculating, but this could have been due to French-speaking nobility being in power, such as Henry VII and Henry VIII, and the French terms filtering down (like the difference between 'beef' and 'cow'). I'm not too sure about how language worked historically in France, and so can't offer any help as to why the French chose 'pissenlit' rather than 'dent-de-lion', possibly because of confusion with real lion's teeth?

editing in progress...

  • I wouldn't be surprised if "dandelion" (or, more likely, one of its ancestors) was the term for a fancy collar worn by royalty, and the flower name derived from that. – Hot Licks Jul 21 '17 at 11:45
  • @HotLicks maybe. It looks like it's got links with food and medicine as well. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taraxacum_officinale – marcellothearcane Jul 21 '17 at 11:48

protected by tchrist Jan 22 '18 at 16:29

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