Daily Archives: February 10, 2011

phlox, phylloxera

First of all: does or doesn’t phlox seem like it might be a shortening of phylloxera? If we can shorten chrysanthemum to mum, if we can shorten San Francisco to Frisco, surely we can shorten phylloxera to phlox, no?

Well, I suppose we could if the word weren’t already taken. So, yes, phlox and phylloxera are two different things. One is a bug and one is a flower. Now: which is which? If you happen to know at least one of them, then of course there’s no guessing, but tell me anyway: which one sounds like a bug and which a flower?

I have the general sense (I’m not going to dig up stats to support it right now; that would take time) that there are quite a few flower names that are polysyllabic and often ending in a: hydrangea, azalea, calendula, camellia, gardenia, portulaca… On the other hand, a word like phlox seems to me better suited to a bug, like gnat, aphid, midge, cockroach, flea, tsetse fly, wasp…

Even if you don’t know either of these words, you can probably see this coming: phlox is a pretty, bright-coloured flower, and phylloxera is a plant louse that plagues grape vines – it destroyed most of the grape vines in Europe in the later 19th century after having been brought over from the Americas. (The vineyards recovered by means of hybridization.) The pair together (not that they are ever seen together) are not for days of wine and roses; however, at least phlox make a substitute for roses, whereas phylloxera deprive you of the wine altogether.

If you are despairing of any sort of sound-sense link in these words, there is still a straw you may cling to: their Greek origins. Phylloxera is not, after all, Classical Greek for “nasty grape-eating bug”. Look closely at its bits (the word, I mean): does phyllo look like pastry? It actually means “leaf” (well, phyllon is the word for “leaf”), just as phyllo pastry is leafy. And xera? Not a warrior princess; just a copy. A photocopy. It’s the source for Xerox, a printer that uses dry ink (toner). Xéros means “dry”. So this is the dry-leaf bug. Meanwhile, Classical Greek phlox means “flame”. (Phlox your Bic?)

Does the ph on phlox make it seem high-level? Or, paradoxically, argot-y, perhaps nerd argot, like phishing, or something a bit hipper, like phat? Does the x make it seem like a character from Dr. Seuss (like the Lorax) or from Star Trek (that would be – uh, Phlox, actually, from Star Trek: Enterprise)? Does it seem perhaps as though the mouth is fuller with ph than with, say, f? Well, what do you think about the word flocks? Does it feel different? Quite the influence that spelling and context have, isn’t it? Phlox and flocks are pronounced exactly the same, after all.

And what about phylloxera: it’s a very similar vocal gesture to that of phlox, just more drawn out and with a /r/ consonant added (and while you, like me, may automatically put the accent on the third-last syllable, there is also the option of putting it on the second-last). It certainly starts soft; it has the hard /ks/ in the middle, but then it ends soft, too. It has a certain liquidity to it as well – like the soft drink you have to have because the bugs got the wine, perhaps. Well, at least there are the flowers…