narcissus, daffodil

Life is not always a bed of roses. (Good thing, too, what with those thorns in the stems.) For some people, it is more a bed of narcissuses.



Did you know that a daffodil is a narcissus? You did? I guess some people actually pay attention to what flowers are called and all that.

For the rest of us, Narcissus is a whole genus of pretty flowering plants that bear names such as narcissus, daffodil, and jonquil. Some are yellow through and through. Others are white but orange in the fuzzy bits. Some look like stars, some like shooting stars, some like cartoon characters. They are all just as pretty as their namesake.

Who is probably not their namesake.

You know who Narcissus was, right? The mythological youth who was extremely good looking but only had eyes for himself? He drove would-be lovers to despair; he was finally tricked into seeing his reflection in a pond, fell in love with what he saw, and died staring at his unattainable idol: himself. It has been said that Narcissus is the namesake of the flower. It has also been said, by equally classical sources, that he is not. The overall historical record suggests that the flowers had the name before the mythical character was ever spoken of.

Which is not to say the self-gazer was named after the flower. The Greek root that the flower probably traces back to, and the person may or may not, is ναρκάω narkaó ‘I grow numb’, the same root that gives us narcotic. The smell of the flower may be anaesthetizing, perhaps – or it may be because the flower is poisonous when eaten (and in large-enough quantities can be fatal). Why not just lie back in a bed of them and become comfortably numb instead. Forget your worries… and all those other people out there who seem to cause them.

Think instead about daffodil. Not Daffy Duck, the spluttering cartoon character who always blamed his problems on those around him (I won’t say he had narcissistic personality disorder, but inability to accept responsibility for negative things goes along with insistence on taking credit for positive things as a key feature of it). That would be a name confusion, whereas daffodil is just, like narcissus, sort of a name confusion.

It goes like this: there is a Greek word, ἀσϕόδελος asfodelos, which is another name for the narcissus and for some similar-looking flowers. You may have heard of asphodels, which are not the same as narcissuseseses. Well, the name attached to the narcissus and came through French and some other languages and landed in English as affodill. But through some mysterious attachment, perhaps from a French d’ carried along, perhaps from a Dutch de attached, perhaps from some English cling-on such as what turned Ed into Ted, it gained a d at the beginning. It may be daffy, but will you, nill you, it will do it.

Subsequently the word asphodel was re-borrowed in unaltered form for a lily-type plant. Just to add to the confusion.

But why be confused? Lie back in the daffodils and think only of yourself, and become numb. Or eat one. Wait, don’t do that; they’re poisonous. But like many things that are poisonous, they also have a medicinal use (the dose makes the poison, you know!). Well, they have several traditional medicinal uses, but there is one prescription drug that is made from one of the alkaloids in it: galantamine. It’s used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

Although I suppose a true narcissist would refuse to accept the possibility of needing galantamine. Well, forget about that. Come look at this pond over here.

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