What is fascinating about the adventure of words is that there is never any real beginning. However far back you follow the thread, however carefully you work through each mutation and identify every borrowing and every drift or twist in meaning, there is always a nebulous, obscure and elusive ‘before’. One could almost call this the dawn of words, the dawn of languages, in the same way that we speak about the dawn of time.
Of course, you can be content with the minimum. The word ‘rose’, for example, clearly comes from the Latin rosa, and it’s quite acceptable to stop there. But if your nature or fervour pushes you on, then be prepared for a long trip.
For the Romans must have found the word rosa somewhere, and it’s with no surprise that we learn that it comes from the Greek rhodon – the same root that gave us ‘rhododendron’, which means ‘rose tree’. But we learn also that in the ancient world – about two and a half thousand years ago - the Greeks said not rhodon but wrodon, a word very probably borrowed from the ancient Indo-Iranian wurdi, warda, ward or vrda.
In Arabic, a rose is called wardah, while in Hebrew it’s vered. While both languages are Semitic, they clearly drank from the same stream as the Greek. The word warda also existed in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Aramaic was one of Antiquity’s great languages and perhaps the first that could claim to be international in scope, given that several empires – including the Assyrian, then the Persian – adopted it as their official language. It is reasonable to suppose, then, that the Indo-Iranian word for ‘rose’ passed into the Semitic languages through Aramaic.1
And before this, ask the insatiably curious? Some linguists have an answer, or rather a theory, ready for them. They claim that the source for all the different words for ‘rose’ lies in the mother language of all Indo-Europeans2 in which the word wrdho meant ‘thorn’ or ‘bramble’. Thus, the original name for ‘rose’ was probably linked to its capacity to be a nuisance rather than to its beauty.
This brings to mind a subtle variant of the classic line about seeing a glass as half empty or half full: the optimist never sees the thorns; the pessimist never sees the rose. No doubt both will agree, however, with the Chinese proverb that says, ‘the rose has thorns only for those who would gather it’.
- The Modern Persian word for rose is gul. Though it seems improbable, linguists think that this word (adopted by the Turks as gül) is nonetheless from the same source, though of course it’s been through a number of mutations. I’m not going to linger on it here; I’m just pointing it out. [↩]
- As I mentioned in my preceding article on the word ‘punch’, linguists have reconstructed this language – called proto-Indo-European or sometimes simply Indo-European – from various languages that belong to the same family. Their starting point is the idea that there had to have been an original group of people who spoke the language from which arose Greek, Latin, French, English, Russian, Persian, Hindi and hundreds of other languages, living or dead. There are various hypotheses about both the era and the area when this initial people lived. [↩]