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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Monday, July 6, 2015

All is well in my cosmos

As is always the case at Chateau Wordlady at this time of year, all is well in my cosmos.

That is, the part of my cosmos represented by my patch of boulevard, which has exploded into a mass of feathery foliage and pink petals. Butterflies flit about in the flowers, and the cats lurk in the mini-jungle created by the stems, occasionally imitating the action of the tiger to hiss at passing dogs from the safety of their cat-cave.

Yes, my cosmos (these ones)
Photo by Chloe Si on Unsplash
 have come into bloom.

But why are these jolly flowers called by the same name as the universe? 

In ancient Greek, kosmos meant "order, ornament". The philosopher Pythagoras applied this word to the world and universe to reflect the perfect order and arrangement he perceived in them. The flower, being native to the tropics of the New World, was not discovered by English speakers till the late 1700s, and was baptized "cosmos" by a botanist to reflect its elegant ornamental appearance. 

As with "lilac",  there's a pronunciation issue with this word, whether it designates the universe or the flower.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it is pronounced KOZZ moss.
American dictionaries say KOZZ m'ss is the most common pronunciation, followed by  KOZZ moass and KOZZ moss
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary says KOZZ moass first (and that's NOT just because its editor-in-chief says it that way!), followed by KOZZ m'ss, and does not even mention KOZZ moss. 

What do you say? Do you pronounce it the same for the universe as for the flower?

I always feel a bit of a cheat when passers-by say "I LOVE your garden", since I do NOTHING but watch the cosmos come up each year from the seeds they have shed the year before (and then toss the deadheads on the ground when they go to seed). Here's Wordlady's gardening tip: if you want a big gardening bang for no bucks and no effort, plant cosmos.

However, not everyone is a fan, apparently. One day when I was out deadheading, a passing pedestrian observed that if she had her way, she would pull out every last ... "cosmo"! Her hatred for the innocent flower was apparently as strong as that innate English aversion to singular nouns ending in "s".

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  1. The word used in John 3:16's Divine Love Proclamation is the Greek word for cosmos and so more accurately read as 'God so loved the 'cosmos', making it a grand statement indeed.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.