For some reason, toilet talk keeps popping up on here (we’re looking at you, vespasienne), and unfortunately we’re heading back down that way now. That’s because last week we found out that when Italian slang gets weird, it gets brilliantly weird:
Pisacàn is an old Venetian word, which has long since dropped into local use in northern Italian slang. Predictably enough, the pis– means “urine”, while –càn comes from the same Latin root as canine (and Canary Islands). No surprises there then. But what is intriguing is that this is apparently another example of an etymological connection between dandelions and—well, what Samuel Johnson would euphemistically call “animal water”:
Quite right too. English is chock-full of slightly pee-tinged nicknames for dandelions, but more on those in a moment. First things first, though—why exactly is it called a dandelion?
English borrowed the word dandelion from French in the early Middle Ages. The original French name—itself derived from mediaeval Latin—was dent de lion, literally meaning “lion’s tooth”, which is a brilliantly imaginative reference to the dandelion’s jagged, sharply-toothed leaves.
Although a handful of even earlier examples of the word have been unearthed in Middle English herbals and medical textbooks—some dating back to the late 1300s—in those, dandelion was still essentially a foreign word, and it wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that it started to become naturalized into English. Ultimately, the first truly English record we have comes from this translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, written in 1513.
Before then—and before we plundered dent de lion from the French—dandelions were known by all kinds of other names in English: in the fifteenth century, they were the priest’s crown (a reference to their bright golden colour) and the monk’s-head (a reference to their bald heads, after all the fluffy seeds have been blown away). Earlier still, the Old English name was ægwyrt, or “egg-wort”, an allusion to the dandelion’s egg yolk-coloured petals. But in the late Middle English period, another entirely different nickname began to emerge: pissabed.
Pissabed derives from the old belief that the dandelions do indeed have a diuretic effect, increasing the amount of urine that the body produces. So have a nice fresh supper of dandelion salad and, well, you might end up having that dream where you’re asleep on the beach and the tide’s coming, or that you’re Ophelia in John Everett Millais’ painting. (If you know what I mean...)
Medicinally, diuretics are used to treat all kinds of different conditions from high blood pressure to liver disease, and in traditional and complementary medicine dandelions have been used to do precisely that for centuries. Whether they work or not (and the jury is certainly still out about that), this ancient association has become so ingrained in folklore that a whole host of pee-related nicknames for the dandelion have since emerged.
The English Dialect Dictionary, for instance, lists pissabed alongside pissybed, pissymoor, pissimire, and pissimer-flower. Other dialect glossaries add pittly-bed, piddle-your-bed, pee-the-bed, pish-the-bed and pissy-mother to the list. And elsewhere there’s jack-piss-the-bed, tiddle-bed, wet-the-bed, and even pisshead. This association isn’t unique to English either: the original Middle English pissabed was probably a translation of the earlier French name piss-en-lit, and alongside that there are German nicknames like Pissblume and Bettnässer (literally “bed-wetter”), the Spanish slang meacama (“piss-the-bed”), and the Italian piscialetto.
It’s not just number ones that dandelions are blamed for either: the EDD also lists the fairly unsubtle shit-a-bed as another alternative name, while one nineteenth century Scots dialect dictionary likewise calls it the bumpipe. The dandelion’s supposed medical benefits are alluded to in nicknames like heart-fever grass and live-long. There’s also dog-posy and dog-stinker, both of which tie in with the Italian “dog-pisses”. An entirely untrue bit of folklore that claims dandelions are poisonous is responsible for nicknames like devil’s-milk plant, canker flower, and witch gowan. And the ancient tradition that the number of breaths it takes to clear the dandelion’s fluffy seed head (known as the pappus, if you want to get technical) is the origin of a clutch of old nicknames like bessy-clock, one-o’clock, and fortune-teller plant.
So just one question remains—why on earth are there so many different names?
Well, it’s worth pointing out that dandelion is by no means alone here. Remember the dishwasher bird? Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me? The lady-with-the-twelve-flounces? And take a look at this fantastic list of local nicknames for woodlice, put together by Moose Allain. The fact is that many of our most familiar, most noticeable, and most frequently-encountered plants and animals end up with page after page of alternative names, simply because they’re so familiar, so noticeable, and so frequently encountered. And the fact that dandelions are edible, as well as medicinally useful, only serves to make them even more noteworthy. Just don’t eat too many of them before bed...