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Thursday, June 23, 2016

One funky plant

We who have gardens that are plunged in shade are ever grateful to the trusty hosta family. But did you know they have not always been called hostas?

Indeed, this plant used to go by the name funkia. I feel it is a pity that this cute word lost out, because I would like to be able to talk about my funkias.

Although the plant is originally from Asia, neither word is of Asian origin. Both are derived from the names of European scientists: "funkia" from H. C. Funck (1771–1839), a Bavarian pharmacist and botanist, and "hosta" from N. T. Host (1761–1834), an Austrian physician and botanist.

I have only ever heard "hosta" pronounced "HOSS ta", but American dictionaries tell me that in the US "HOE sta" is more common. How do you pronounce it?

Another name for the hosta is "plantain lily", because of its similarity to these plantains, which also grow in my garden but make me less happy than my hostas:

You would think a plantain is called this because, well, it's a plant. But the origin is a quite different "plant": Latin planta (sole of the) foot. Plantains, as you can see, have broad, flat, prostrate leaves looking not unlike a foot. Well, if you use your imagination.

Another pronunciation surprise awaited me when I looked up "plantain" and discovered that I should not be calling it a "plan TANE" as I have always thought, but a "PLAN t'n". The same holds true for the other "plantain", a starchy type of unsweet banana.

fried plantains

Looking at the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, I see that I wasn't allowing any of this "PLAN t'n" nonsense in it, no matter what all the other dictionaries say. To be so bold, we must have done a survey of Canadians about their pronunciation of this word. How do you pronounce it? (Please don't tell me I was wrong!)

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  1. I'm definitely in the PLAN-tayn and HOSS-ta camps, and in fact I haven't heard anyone pronounce them any different, although it's possible I wasn't paying attention.

    And plantains are the worst — the weedy ones, not the banana ones. I tried to crowd them out with clover, with only limited success. I'm considering paving the entire backyard. (There's a word my English mother never got used to — it was always "the garden" to her!)

  2. Like hosta, the common pronunciation of tradescantia (the spiderwort) hides the name of its eponym, John Tradescant. I usually hear trad-dis-CANT-ya.

  3. When I was editing an edition of George Leslie's catalogue (the Leslie of Leslieville) I ran into a number of goodies, and started appreciating why the Master Gardeners insist on volunteers learning the Latin names (although even those change with regularity). Back when George Leslie was selling things in the 1850s (and proud of not using Latin names) he referred to them as day lilies. Not what we expect these days from day lilies!

  4. I say plan-TANE and HOSS-ta (grew up near Toronto, now in Vancouver). I can't say I've ever heard PLANt'n or HOES-ta!


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.