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Mum's not the word on Mother's Day

May 10, 2015

Flowers are a popular way to honor Mother's Day, so we decided to take a look at some expressions that seem to have floral origins.

First, there's "a bed of roses."

"This phrase has been around longer than I was expecting," says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan.

"The Oxford English Dictionary traces it back to at least the end of the 16th century, and it could be a bed of flowers; it could also be a bed of down – Shakespeare uses that in Othello – or just generally a bed of flowers. In any case, it's a nice place to be."

Another expression where flowers indicate something nice is "fresh as a daisy."

"That's used when you're youthful or looking healthful," Curzan says. "This one also has some variance historically. You could be 'fresh as a rose,' 'fresh as a flower,' or – I love this one – 'fresh as paint.'"

We also use floral expressions that are more negative, like "wallflower." Many of us tend to think of a wallflower as a girl or woman who sits alone at a dance or other social event.

"The OED has exactly that definition," Curzan says. "It traces wallflower back to the early 19th century, and defines it as a lady who keeps her seat at the side of the room while others are dancing. If you look in American Heritage, you'll find a more generic description. The editors there define it as 'one  who does not participate in a social activity because of shyness or unpopularity.'"

How about "a shrinking violet?"

"This is a little different," Curzan says. "Again, we've got a nice little flower, a violet. The 'shrinking' here is in the sense of someone who is being shy or retiring. This goes back to the early 19th century, and first shows up in poetry in Britain and the U.S. What I was struck by when I started looking at how we're using this now, is that we rarely say someone is a shrinking violet. What we tend to say is that person is no shrinking violet."

And finally there's "mum's the word." It turns out that expression has nothing to do with mothers or flowers.

"The 'mum' in 'mum's the word' is the sound we make if we're closing our mouth because we're not going to say anything, as in 'mm-mm, I'm not talking.' And that's where we get the expressions 'to keep mum,' 'stay mum,' and 'mum's the word,'" Curzan explains.

In any case, we're sending our best wishes for a very happy Mother's Day to all.