Samara.

It has come to my attention that those annoying winged things some trees use to spread their seeds are called samara (/səˈmɑːrə/, UK also /ˈsæmər-/). That word is equally annoying; it doesn’t sound like what it means, and it’s already hard enough distinguishing between Samara and Samarra (which we discussed back in 2003). It’s apparently from a Latin word samera or samara ‘elm seed’; anybody know more about this?

Comments

  1. John Cowan says:

    Wikt says it’s Latin < Gaulish < Proto-Celtic *samos ‘summer’ (a cognate) < PIE *sm̥h₂-ó-s, and points out that it gets initial stress in BrE (per the Latin) but penultimate stress, same as Samarra, in AmE.

    As for Samarra, WP says it is “insecurely” identified with the Assyrian fortified site of Sur-marrati. In a stele, Sennacherib says he enlarged Sur-marrati, rebuilt the wall around it, and dug a moat around that. Autocrats, the same the world over.

  2. Speaking of autocrats, the wikipedia page says that another name for the flying seeds is wingnut.

    We called them whirlybirds when I was little. They came from the sycamore (UK version, Acer pseudoplatanus).

  3. They do not annoy me in the slightest and in childhood we used to call them “vertolet” (Russian for helicopter). Apparently, the correct Russian word is “krylatka”, meaning a thing with a wing…

  4. My first grade teacher was a Mrs. Samara, pronounced /səˈmɑːɹə/ (at least by me). As for the seedy things, I saw them often enough but I never really acquired a word for them.

  5. is it related to other “seed” words like semen or German Samen?

  6. David Marjanović says:

    To my surprise, the German Wikipedia knows Samara – and Flügelnuss, lit. “wingnut”! I’m familiar with maple fruits but did not have a word for them.

  7. I did a Google image search of “wingnut” (no luck, just lots of nuts with wings that enable them to be turned without tools), “wingnut seed” (bingo, lots of wingnuts from trees!), and “samara” (lots of creepy photos of Samara Morgan from the supernatural horror movie the ring).

  8. They do not annoy me in the slightest and in childhood we used to call them “vertelot”

    In my particular American childhood, we also called them “helicopters.” I’m likewise puzzled as to why anyone would find them annoying.

  9. If you don’t have to worry about keeping up a lawn, garden, sidewalk, or train line, I’m sure they’re charming. To quote Thomas Pakenham: “Certainly the [sycamore] gets a bad press because of its habit of dropping sticky leaves on pavements and railway lines, causing delays and accidents…. Its propeller-like seeds are a torment to gardeners, infesting lawns and rose beds alike.”

  10. Perhaps he said that. But if so he wasn’t american. The tree known as a sycamore here gives a cute little ball, not a winged seed. He was perhaps speaking of the sycamore maple. But most maples produce these,, traditionally known as maple keys, though we too called them helicopters. Our silver maple gave a good crop this spring. Why you’d need to do anything more arduous to clean them up than just mowing them into the lawn I don’t know though I guess on the bare ground of a garden they might sprout, which would be annoying.

    Meanwhile, the biblical sycamore is still a third tree, the sycamore fig.

  11. Exactly. I no longer live in a house with maples, but I never saw them as something that required tidying up or any effort at all. My idea of “annoying” tree detritus would be ginkgo berries.

  12. My son and his classmates also call them “hélicopères” in French! This metaphor is apparently quite widespread.

  13. I wonder what kids called them before the invention of propellers and helicopters.

  14. Perhaps he said that. But if so he wasn’t american. The tree known as a sycamore here gives a cute little ball, not a winged seed. He was perhaps speaking of the sycamore maple.

    Yes, he was speaking of what is called the sycamore maple in the US. But I find all those helicopter thingies annoying.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    You say they “are called” samara (or samaras? samarae?). Good sir, I do believe you are using the passive voice and thereby being vague about agency. Who is it that calls them that? Perhaps botanical specialists writing for a specialized readership. But who else? Who has an example of that word being used by a normal English-speaker in a normal context? COCA has about 200 hits for “samara” and “samaras” combined (zero for “samarae”), only one of which seemed to actually be this sense and that was in a periodical titled Horticulture. , A few others, to be sure, were for some sort of clever gizmo described in Popular Mechanics that was probably named based on this sense.

    I find it vaguely puzzling that I cannot remember what I called them as a boy although I must have called them something, since they were certainly common where I grew up.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    I must have called them something, since they were certainly common where I grew up

    Non sequitur – I didn’t call them anything, beyond “maple seeds” when I really had to. Lexical gaps are everywhere!

    (The comparison to helicopters was common, but I’m pretty sure I hadn’t heard them called such. …Maple fruits, not lexical gaps.)

  17. Stu Clayton says:

    Good sir, I do believe you are using the passive voice and thereby being vague about agency.

    Ha ha, what snowflakes these ! In Germany public prose is 90% passive constructions. You rarely learn from it who did what, or should be doing it. If you know anything about agents, it is through back channels, by chance.

    One result of this is that political and economic activities resemble the flight of whirlybirds, propelled by an Invisible Hand. There is no one to take any blame.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    And yet, the voters blame politicians anyway, hating some as much as others hate – or in some cases the same people hate – Hillary Clinton. Take that, Sapir & Whorf !!

  19. vrai.cabecou says:

    Did you ever get an answer about pronouncing Mosul? The sound is represented by a waw, right? so it could be several things based on my very limited knowledge of Arabic.

  20. @vrai. cabecou: As far as I know it’s Mauṣil [ˈmɐʊsˤᵻl], with the diphthong presumably being smoothed to [oː] in dialectal speech.

  21. FWIW, Walde-Hofmann think the Latin word is a Celtic loanword (which makes sense — it doesn’t sound very Latin somehow) and derive it from a *samos “summer”, which I assume is the time of year that they mostly torment gardeners etc. (“They” the helicopter thingies, not Walde-Hofmann.)

  22. Did you ever get an answer about pronouncing Mosul? The sound is represented by a waw, right? so it could be several things based on my very limited knowledge of Arabic.

    It could indeed, but I have had no reason to change my understanding that the Arabic name has /u/; of course, if an Iraqi weighs in with different information I’ll be delighted to revise my views.

  23. We called the maple seed things “helicopters” mostly, in Michigan where maples are (literally) part of the local color. There was a maple tree (although sadly not a sugar maple) in my front yard in East Lansing when I was little. What I loved about the seeds was that if you broke them in half, you could then peel the sticky seed part open and stick the whole thing to your nose, making yourself look like Raymond Luxury Yacht.

  24. @languagehat: Just looking now, Woodhead and Beane’s A Dictionary of Iraqi Arabic has it as Mūṣil – though as I noted above, it’s usually given as Mauṣil in MSA. If Western Mosul comes from the former, then it might be that the lowering influence of the emphatic made the vowel seem more like an o.

  25. Just looking now, Woodhead and Beane’s A Dictionary of Iraqi Arabic has it as Mūṣil – though as I noted above, it’s usually given as Mauṣil in MSA.

    Thanks! I care much more about local pronunciations than whatever MSA chooses as “standard.”

  26. To me a wingnut is a piece of hardware, and a maple twirler is a maple twirler.

  27. Terry Collmann says:

    “To me a wingnut is a piece of hardware” – and to Britons “wing-nut” refers to HRH The Prince of Wales.

  28. “To me a wingnut is a piece of hardware” – and to Britons “wing-nut” refers to HRH The Prince of Wales.

    For most Americans, “wing-nut” suggests first and foremost an avid follower of certain ranting right wing radio hosts; the small piece of hardware would now be an afterthought.

  29. Of course when I think of “wing-nut” I think of right-wing nuts, too, but I have the literal hardware sense, too; and I was unaware of the seedly sense.

  30. I still find it very odd that “right-wing nut” has been shortened to “wing nut,” which was presumably only possible because there was a previously existing term “wing nut.”

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Wingnut in that sense obviously has to be compared to the more bipartisan terms fruitcake, nutbar and from the land of fruits and nuts.

  32. I wouldn’t say “land of fruits and nuts” is more bipartisan. It refers specifically to California as a place of homosexuals and insane people, which I’d assume are more hippie-like and New Age sorts, not conservative crazies. So it seems to target the left. And does anyone below the age of 70 use the slur “fruit” anymore?

  33. After Airbnb chose “Samara” as the name of its design studio, in 2016, I wrote about the name, its derivations, and its uses in the world of commerce. https://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2016/08/name-in-the-news-samara.html

  34. Thanks, a nice roundup!

    There’s also a Russian city called Samara, at the confluence of the Samara and Volga rivers. The city was founded in the late 16th century, but I couldn’t find an origin for its name.

    Well, the easy answer is that it’s named for the nearby Samara River, but then you’ll want to know where that comes from, which is unclear. There’s a Turkic word samar ‘bag,’ but why would the river be named Bag? A more plausible suggestion is that it’s from an old Turkic ethnonym Samar or Samarchik.

  35. John Cowan says:

    There is also the oppositely sensed partisan term moonbat.

  36. I would like to note that

    Depuis le 2 janvier 2012, les habitants de la Somme s’appellent les Samariens, en référence au fleuve qui donna son nom au département, la Somme, dont le nom gaulois était Samara.

    Samarans of all countries, unite!

  37. “I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me. I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.”

  38. Penultimate stress is so firmly entrenched in Russian as the default that, after the 2012 Costa Rica earthquake struck, a newsreader pronounced Sámara as Samára.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    “[…] I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.”

    “I am Darkwing Duck.”

  40. January First-of-May says:

    Penultimate stress is so firmly entrenched in Russian as the default that, after the 2012 Costa Rica earthquake struck, a newsreader pronounced Sámara as Samára.

    I’m guessing that they just saw Самара in their text and didn’t realize it wasn’t pronounced the same as the much more familiar Russian city.

  41. That, too, of course. But I’ve been paying attention to the phenomenon and it is certainly there. Copiapó becomes Kopyápo, Cáceres Kacéres, Bérgamo Bergámo, San’á Sána, and so on and so forth.

  42. There is a movie called Sveaborg about the Sveaborg rebellion, and it was pronounced Sveáborg throughout, although it is Sveabóri in Swedish (the final i is very short). The (former) fortress is presently called Suomenlinna, near Helsinki.

    https://www.suomenlinna.fi/en/fortress/

  43. didn’t realize it wasn’t pronounced the same

    And didn’t give a shit to boot.

  44. Sveaborg/Suomenlinna

    So they renamed ‘Swedish Fort’ into ‘Finnish Castle’?

    How boringly original…

  45. “Meanwhile, the biblical sycamore is still a third tree, the sycamore fig” … which some people spell ”sycomore” to distinguish it from the other sycamores; dunno whether they also pronounce it differently.

  46. John Cowan says:

    I am Darkwing Duck.

    “The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man. The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’ ”

    Pretty tricky thing to forget your own name.

  47. Trond Engen says:

    juha: it was pronounced Sveáborg throughout, although it is Sveabóri in Swedish (the final i is very short)

    That’s interesting. I’d think it would be either sveaborj or sveaborr, with the final g becoming either j or nothing depending on dialect. The stresstone pattern can be either ²svea”borj or “svea’borj. The former is more colloquial than the latter, but I’m not sure how widespread it is in modern Swedish.

  48. Trond Engen says:

    Pretty tricky thing to forget your own name.

    My old boss tells a story of a structural engineer in the local construction business, let’s call him H. It happened so long ago that people had regular errands in post offices and banks and waited in lines for personal service. My boss-to-be and a colleague came into the post office (or bank) one day for whatever errand — co-signing something, maybe. Anyway, as they moved forward they saw H. standing in front of a counter struggling with a form. “Hi, H.”, one of them said. “Oh, yeah, right, thanks!”, he said, filled out the form quickly, and left.

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