fuchsia

OK, stop. Don’t look up. Close your eyes and spell this word out loud.

OK, check now. How’d you do?

This is indeed the sort of word that may confuse ya – or outfox you. A variety of spellings may be found for it; fuschia, fuscia, and fucia are all common enough. And they would seem to make more sense. How did it come to be spelled that way, anyway?

Well, rather, how did it come to be pronounced that way would be the right order of things. It was named (in 1703) after 16th-century German botanist Leonhard Fuchs. He’s far from the only person to have a plant named after him by appending the neo-latinate ia on the end; for instance, Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US minister to Mexico, introduced the plant subsequently named after him to the US (and you will notice that the /i/ has been dropped in common pronunciation), and American anatomist Caspar Wistar had a now well-known plant named for him after his death (there was obviously some inconsistency in the spelling, given that we call it wisteria).

So anyway, Fuchs, which is German for “fox,” is not pronounced like “fewsh”; it rhymes with kooks, even in German (the velar fricative becomes a stop before the [s]). In theory, this word should be said “fooks-ya.” But aside from that sounding rather rude in Northern England, the average anglophone who looks at this word is unlikely to think of saying it that way.

The next question, though, is: what do fuchsia look like? I’m sure you know what colour they’re supposed to be. No doubt Herr Fuchs had no idea that, a half millennium after his time, his name would have transmuted from a reference to an animal known for being red to a soft, mushy word for a very floral, feminine kind of magenta. But the flowers actually come in a variety of kinds of red and purple. As for the flowers, they’re dainty little things that grow drooping downwards, looking rather like escapees from an especially florid ballet production, petals out like skirts and stamens down like spindly legs.

But it seems that the colour beats the flower in popular usage now. This word tends to be found near other colour names and near words such as dress, silk, hair, and lipstick. Not that the plant is rare or difficult; it’s actually quite hardy, surviving, like this word, rather better than you might expect.

Now, look again at this word. Does it look like a word for that kind of flower or colour? Really, I don’t know; you tell me. The f by itself bears a certain resemblance to the flower, but if I look at that fu and the ch it seems rather unfriendly and coarse. If, on the other hand, I think of how it’s pronounced and just glance at it as an ensemble, the effect of the sound takes over; I forget its past and heed its “fewsha.”

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