Round Robin: Shop Talk

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DENVER, Colorado—It’s a fact of American life: as we become an increasingly complex society, our language must adapt to specialized interests. Sit down with a bunch of computer people and you’re unlikely to understand much of what they’re saying. Is a “RAM chip” a large new snack for which I need a “megabyte”? This new language—precise, direct, practical—can be annoying if one doesn’t speak it.

Other occupations and activities have their own languages. A novice tennis player needs to expand his vocabulary to include “topspin”, “volley”, “drop shot”, “overhead smash”, and “Navratilova”. Learning the words is the easy part.

It’s a marvel that our language adapts to the way we live and enables us to communicate quickly and well. I am irritated when words are used to obstruct clear speech. I wish nightly, as I watch the news, that the weatherperson will forget to forecast “scattered thunderstorm activity” and simply say, “It’s going to rain.”

Part of our gardening language is simple. We all understand “dig”, “hole”, “sow”, “sprout”, “prune”, “clip”, “weed”, “mildew”, “fungus”, “rot”, and “die”. That’s why I react to the words “plant material” and “install” the way I do to fingernails on a chalkboard. Why complicate direct, vibrant words? Plants are not material, they are plants. Cotton shirts and hula skirts are made from plant material, not gardens. We don’t install plants; we plant them. A furnace is installed. We water them in case scattered thunderstorm activity does not occur. The only difference between “planting” and “installing plant mate­rial” is that the latter costs a lot more.

The other part of our gardening lingo is Latin. It doesn’t come easily to most of us, although some of my friends claim that in another life I was Emperor Nero. I don’t recall that he was noted for his gardening skills, but he spoke Latin, drank wine, fiddled around, and was a mentally unbalanced control freak. The similarity escapes me. Except for that one unfortunate microwave incident involving Polish sausage, I haven’t set so much as a block of Denver aflame.

I don’t use scientific names to show off. I use them to be precise. A visitor this autumn decided that one of my plants would look great in her garden and asked me its name. I don’t know a common name for it, so I told her the scientific one, Rudbeckia triloba.”

“Oh no, don’t do that to me,” she wailed.

“Hold on,” I replied, “it’s not that hard. Rudbeckia was named for two Swedish botanists named Rudbeck, and triloba means that the leaves have three points.”

Then the name made sense to her. I told her not to worry about pronouncing it correctly: “You must use it to get the plant you want. There are dozens of kinds of rudbeckias available at the nurseries.”

I don’t use a scientific name where a common one will do. I would never say “Ocimum” when “basil” is perfectly clear or “Anethum” for “dill”, but when it comes to unusual herbs, it’s necessary to get technical. Hardly a visitor to my garden can pass by the ornamental Orig­anum laevigatum ‘Hopley’s Purple’ without asking about it. Everybody wants it. “Just remember the ‘Hopley’s Purple’ part,” I tell them. But there’s no getting around Angelica gigas (a broad-leaved biennial species with deep maroon flowers), Marrubium rotundifolium (a horehound relative with mint green leaves and whorls of white flowers), or Allium maackii (8 inches tall with rosy lavender flowers). If you want to get the plant, you’ve got to know the name.

It’s complicated. Names seem to change on taxonomists’ whims. The people who actually grow these plants have a tough time keeping up. Maybe gardeners, nurseries, and writers could just call a halt to it. We could just freeze the names at a certain point in time, say, 1990, accept every name change up until then and promise to use them, and accept new names for new plants but not new names for old plants.