I’ve always loved the word “loosestrife,” without having a mental picture of the actual plant (sadly often the case with me and plant names). Now I have two. I’m visiting my wife’s family in the Berkshires (the wooded hilly region of western Massachusetts), and I was told that the attractive purple flowers fringing the pond were purple loosestrife, an invasive species that “now poses a serious threat to native emergent vegetation in shallowwater marshes” throughout the northeast. And when I asked what the pretty clusters of small white flowers in a vase were, I was told they were gooseneck loosestrife. Gooseneck loosestrife! Isn’t that a wonderful phrase? I’ve been mumbling it to myself ever since. (And they do look astonishingly like the heads of geese.)

Addendum. Incidentally, “loosestrife” is an interesting word; it pretends to be a translation of lysimachia, but that Greek word is actually derived from a personal name, Lysimachus (or Lysimakhos if you’re into that sort of thing).


  1. I just ran across this post and was pleased all over again by the etymology of “loosestrife,” which I had utterly forgotten!

  2. January First-of-May says

    Perhaps the most hilarious mistaken-translation etymology story that I’m aware of is Russian zolototysyachnik, literally “golden-thousander”, a genus of flowering plants in the gentian family.
    It seems to have no association with thousands, and most species’ flowers are pink, not golden; so whence the name?

    Well, apparently it is a calque of German Tausendgüldenkraut, which means “thousand-goldener”.
    Still gold, still thousand. Still not clear where it could possibly get such a name from.

    As it happens, the German word is a (now more common) variant of earlier Hundertguldenkraut “hundred-goldener”.
    Now there’s a hundred of gold – yet we seem no closer to an explanation of how it applies to the flower.

    But we have, in fact, almost reached the solution: that German word is a calque of the Latin word for the plants in question. What could the Latin for “hundred-goldener” be?
    Well, “hundred” is centum, “gold” is aurum… so, centauria.

    You probably see what happened here. The original name in fact came from Greek, kentaureion, and meant “of the centaurs”, apparently because the plant’s medicinal properties were supposedly discovered by said mythical creatures.
    Latin had faithfully borrowed the term, but at some point people had apparently forgotten what centaurs were (and/or what they had to do with the plant), and reinterpreted the name as having the “hundred” and “gold” roots – regardless of how little sense that made.
    The rest, as we say, is history.

    (As it happens, the common English name for those plants is centaury – which is enough of a spoiler that I didn’t mention it earlier.)

  3. Wonderful!

  4. David Marjanović says

    Probably, the gold coin named aureus is part of this story. The switch from Gulden (“gold coin” as a currency name) to the adjective gülden (“golden”, nowadays mostly gold) is interesting: “thousandfold golden herb”?

  5. Trond Engen says

    I see that the Norwegian name of Lysimachia is fredløs, apparently another strange mistranslation. The word means “outlaw”, literally “peaceless”. But name may possibly have been conceived (in Danish?) as something like “peace-release”.

    I knew the name as some sort of flower my grandmother or my mother would talk about. I remember vaguely imagining that the name had something to do with quick growth.

  6. Lars (the original one) says

    The ODS says origin unknown, but the -løs part probably = ‘-less’. I would guess it’s a new coinage meaning something like ‘restless,’ (also attested as a poetical usage of the adjective) though as a flower name it’s attested from 1767 when the “Danish Law” of Christian V was still in force and with it the legal concept of outlawry.

  7. Trond Engen says

    Lars 1.0: I would guess it’s a new coinage meaning something like ‘restless,’ (also attested as a poetical usage of the adjective)

    True. That’s probably why it gave me the idea of quick growth.

  8. Pat Gilroy says

    In England we have Yellow Loosestrife, (Lysimachia vulgaris) a native wildflower. Purple Loosestrife is also native to UK. They are not related, but the name Loosestrife comes from the fact that both plants were once uses to drive the flies from working oxen, making them less irritable… less strife. The German name would be derived from the yellow species, Lysimachia.

Speak Your Mind