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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Language of Flowers

A common purple lilac expresses the "first
emotions of love" in the language of flowers.

In the Victorian era, when social interactions were closely watched and regulated, flowers and floral arrangements were cleverly used to communicate.  Functioning as coded messages, one could express feelings that might be unwise to state verbally, in light of those rigid social conventions.  There were even dictionaries of "floriography".  Their meanings were universally understood, so one had to be careful, which probably added a little enticing danger to the communication.

A copy of the 1847 volume of The Flowers Personified, published in New York
by N. Cleaveland, Esq.  It is a translation of Les Fleurs Animées by Grandville.

A bouquet of flowers, also known as a posy (posey or posie), nosegay, or tussie-mussie, were often given as gifts, even in medieval times when they were a necessary accessory to hide bodily odors.  (Hence the term "nosegay" - to keep the nose gay, when that word did not have a sexual connotation.)  An arrangement of flowers could be used to convey a sentence or verse.

A hybrid Oriental lily, the meaning could be purity.

Flowers and arrangments gained popularity from 1837, during Queen Victoria's reign, when they became the fashion.  A listing of flowers and their corresponding meanings were in all popular household manuals and social guide books.  Madame Charlotte de la Tour wrote a flower dictionary in 1818 called Le Language des Fleurs.  This inspired Miss Carruthers of Inverness to write Flower Lore: The Teachings of Flowers, Historical, Legendary, Poetical and Symbolic in 1879.  Her book was very popular in England and the U.S., and has become the standard for symbolism.

A camellia could be excellence

The meanings can have some complexity.  The shades of a type of flower have different meanings, and two different colors of a flower in one bouquet can mean something entirely different.  Pictures of flowers on stationary also had meaning, and the pictures could be more important than the letter.

A poppy meant pleasure or fun.

The presentation of the flower(s) held meaning as well.  Given by the right hand meant "yes"; the left hand meant "no".  A flower held upright was a positive sign; held upside-down was a negative sign.  A ribbon tied to the left referred to the giver; tied to the right referred to the receiver.

Pink roses mean happiness.

However, despite the books, lists, etc., there is little evidence that Victorians actually ardently used the "language of flowers".  It was mainly used by artists, writers, and poets who wanted to spice up their creations with a little romance - or not.

Rosemary is for remembrance (these are in flower).

Floriography has its roots in other cultures - most sources list Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern cultures.  From the Turkish harems came selam (or salaam, a Turkish greeting), which was not a language of flowers but a mnemonic system.  This coded system was not limited to flowers, but included objects as well.  By handing someone a pear you told them not to despair - Ermut, Ver bize hir umut (Pear, give me hope).  Luckily this example also rhymes in English!  The difference between the selam and the Victorian system was the selam meanings had to be shared only among a small group of people in order to be safely secret, whereas the Victorian system was known by all.

Jonquil/narcissus/daffodil means "return my affection".

Hanakotoba is the Japanese system for the language of flowers.  Although theirs has tended to become westernized, it was once a separate system of meanings. The Japanese did not limit flower giving to women.  Japanese men, including Samurais, were cultured and loved things of beauty, including flowers.

We still give flowers, but today the selection seems to be based more on price and preference than any inherent meaning.  Perhaps that will change.  How fun to send a message with such things of beauty!

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.
For language references, this site is interesting.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent writing! Who does not love receiving a flower? Beautiful expression on a timeless topic.
    Flowers still retain symbolism today in our culture. Thanks, Linda! Sybil