Friday, 10 June 2011

The original pink

Dianthus plumarius
The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives no fewer than six principal definitions for the word pink. In reverse order these are: a noise made in an internal combustion engine; a young salmon or minnow; to pierce slightly with a sword, or to cut with a zigzag edge; an old-fashioned sailing vessel; "a yellowish lake pigment" (lake being reddish); plant of the genus Dianthus. But the latter entry, actually the first in the list, also includes such terms as 'in the pink', hunting-pink, pink disease, pink-eye disease, a 'pale red colour tending to purple' and and alludes to both pink elephants and pink gin.

Looking up the etymology of 'pink' online (e.g. the Online Etymology Dictionary) I find that the earliest recorded use in English was in the 1570s for  Dianthus and that this may have come from either the jagged edge of the petals suggesting pinking as in cutting cloth, or from a Dutch term pinck oogen, small or half-shut eyes. Pinkie for the little finger, comes from this root too. For most people the primary use of the word is as a colour, but although 'pink-coloured' was in use by 1681, the word pink to describe a pale rose shade didn't appear until the 1730s.

Curiously enough, Dianthus seems not to be a very old name either, at least not in conjunction with the genus we know by that name today. Gerard (1597) calls his pinks Caryophyllus, as for carnations, and so does Parkinson (1629) but he adds that some people believed that they were the dios anthos (Jove's flower) of Theophrastus: this view eventually prevailed, with Linnaeus applying the contracted version Dianthus to the genus. It is very odd to read the old authors and see the flowers decribed as light red, or purplish, or 'a purple colour tending to blewnesse' - anything but pink!

Dianthus plumarius, now in full flower here, is an important ancestor of many, if not most, garden pinks. It has been in cultivation in Britain for centuries, the most telling proof of this being its persistence on the ruins of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, and a few other similar buildings, having escaped from the abbey gardens onto the cliff-like walls: it has survived there for nearly five centuries. It's a leggy, lax sort of thing and the flowers aren't spectacular by garden Dianthus standards, but they are strongly clove-scented, and they are indubitably pink - a pleasing plant to grow. While reading-up for this post I've made the discovery that the epithet plumarius was given to it by none other than John Gerard, who thought that its laciniate petal margins ('pinked') resembled a feather 'whereupon I gave it the name Plumarius, or feathered Pinke.'

The flowers of Dianthus plumarius are both pink and pinked.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and informative article indeed. nice colors of flowers I have to admit that I always follow all news about this, so it was quite interesting to read this your post about this subject. Reading this your entry I have even noticed some new information which I haven’t known before. Thanks a lot for sharing this interesting post and I will be waiting for other great news from you in the nearest future.


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