Happy chrysanthemum season! It’s the flower of the month for November. It’s also popular on Mother’s Day in May in Australia (mum’s the word!). It’s a flower of love and friendship, and also of death: in some places (notably New Orleans) it’s the featured flower of remembrance on All Saints’ Day. It’s the imperial flower of Japan – the throne of the emperor is the Chrysanthemum Throne, and the flower is featured on the imperial flag – and it’s also used as slang in Japanese and Chinese for ‘butthole’. In English, it has a long name but is often reduced to a very short one (mum!). It comes in dozens of species and countless cultivars. It is thus, we may say, a flower of considerable variety.

Well, in some ways, at least. Among Western languages, the words for it are just about universally chrysanthemum or something nearly identical (Finnish krysanteemit is about as far as it goes), all tracing back to Greek χρῡσάνθεμον, from khrusós χρυσός ‘gold’ and ánthos ἄνθος ‘flower’ (which not all chrysanthemums are, but the Greek name was first originally for the corn-marigold, Chrysanthemum segetum). The mum to which we commonly shorten it is really just a suffix – a bit of Latinized derivational morphology, nothing to do with the roots.

On the other hand, in China, where the chrysanthemum was first cultivated some 3500 years ago, the name for it is 菊花. That’s also the name for it in Japan, if you’re writing in kanji, and it’s also the name for it in Korea, if you’re writing in hanja. But of course it’s not pronounced the same in all three languages. We’ll get to that; I’ll start by telling you that in Mandarin, it’s júhuā (the j is said about like English “j”; the u is like German “ü”; hua is like “hwa”; and the tones are rising on the first and high level on the second).

菊花 is made of two characters, and the second one means ‘flower’; the first one means ‘chrysanthemum’. Why not just say  (菊)? Because there are assorted other words that are also pronounced , a notable one of which is 局, which means a lot of things, including ‘office’, ‘bureau’, ‘situation’, ‘arrangement’, ‘organization’, and ‘chessboard’. So for clarity the huā (花) is added to make it clear when speaking that this is the  that’s the flower. (By the way, no, ‘flower arrangement’ is not 花局, sorry; it’s 插花, chāhuā, which could be translated as ‘insert flowers’.)

And why the heck would they have words for ‘flower’ and ‘arrangement’ that sound the same? Well, they didn’t always… in Middle Chinese, the chrysanthemum was said /kɨuk̚/ and the arrangement was said /ɡɨok̚/. But – in Mandarin, though not in all kinds of Chinese – the final stop got dropped (as they all did in Mandarin), and the initial stops got palatalized and merged. But Japanese borrowed the words (both of them) along with their characters a long time ago, and in Japanese 菊 is kiku but 局 is kyoku (there are actually other pronunciations of both of them in different contexts; Japanese’s use of Chinese characters – kanji – is ideographic and not strictly phonetic; for example, 花 is most often pronounced hana but 菊花 is kiku ka).

OK, fine, but what about these characters, these little flowers of ink? The first thing to note is that both of them, 菊and 花, have the same top part, which is a piece that by itself signifies ‘grass’ – or, more broadly, any kind of field-growing plant. Beneath that, in 菊 you see something that kind of looks like a chrysanthemum face-on: 匊. When it’s like that without the grass on top, it’s pronounced , and it doesn’t mean ‘chrysanthemum’. Nope, it’s also two parts; the middle bit, 米, by itself is , and it means ‘grain’; it comes from a depiction of the separation of grains by threshing. The outside part, 勹, isn’t used by itself, but in combining it usually refers to wrapping or enclosing. Together those two, 匊, originally meant ‘handful’ (the amount of grain you could hold in your hand) but now translate as ‘receive with both hands’. 

Which is a lovely thing to do with a big bunch of chrysanthemums, but really the 匊 in 菊, however much it might look like a chrysanthemum head-on, is just there because it’s phonetically the same (though the tone has changed now), so the character is put together as ‘field plant that sounds like ju (handful)’. But that chrysanthemum-looking bit is there; they could have used a different character for the sound, after all – there are others…

OK, and 花? Is it put together as ‘field plant that sounds like hua’? Well… yeah. But again, that phonetic part, 化, is recognizable and has meaning too. It’s made of two parts, which – originally – are the same character, 人, one right side up and one upside down, and it just got modified a bit over time. What does that character mean? ‘Human’ or ‘person’ or ‘man’. Meaning that 化 is formed as two humans, one right side up, one upside down. Nice, eh? And what has that to do with flowers, aside from the sound (huà)? Its meaning is ‘change’. The two humans depicted were really one in two states, tumbling head over heels. Not because flowers will make someone fall head over heels for you – they might, but your results may vary – but flowers are a transformation of a plant of the field from mere grass to something lovelier.

So here. Have a handful of transformation. If you look at all the things this plant’s name has been, there’s no shortage of transformation – and if you look at the things it can signify (including love and death), there’s still more. And then there’s the matter of how many different ways chrysanthemums can look…

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