Dear Word Detective: During the Victorian era, the language of flowers was type of Morse code for lovers and friends. A flower listed in many glossaries of flower code, “abecedary,” is said to mean “volubility.” However, I am unable to find out what the flower is. All dictionary sources define “abecedary” as a child’s alphabet book or an ancient text in tablet form. Is there a flower previously known by the common name “abecedary,” or is this a misprint that has been maintained through repeated printings over the years? — Katharine Elliott.
Ah, the language of flowers. A few years ago I wrote a book titled “Making Whoopee — Words of Love for Lovers of Words” (makes a lovely Valentine’s Day gift, nudge, nudge). In the course of researching a section on the Victorian use of flowers as coded communication between lovers (even the knot used to tie a bouquet could have a hidden meaning), I learned that “floriography” became immensely popular in Victorian England, with dozens of books offering interpretations of some often fairly obscure flowers. One of the most popular was the Victorian illustrator Kate Greenaway’s 1885 “The Language of Flowers,” which was followed by many others, including at least one, in 1892, that apparently (as was a common practice at the time) copied chunks of Greenaway’s flower glossary wholesale.
Then came the internet, and platoons of people, or possibly monkeys, began furiously typing Greenaway’s text (which is still under copyright) into web sites. The very first two entries in the text as rendered on dozens of web sites today are “Abecedary,” which supposedly connotes “volubility” (talkativeness) and “Abatina,” said to signal “fickleness.” But as far as I can tell, “Abecedary” and “Abatina” are not and have never been the names of flowers, and, significantly, the only Victorian glossaries that include them are apparently Greenaway’s and the 1892 volume. In fact, since I don’t have a copy of the Greenaway book, I can’t swear she includes them. They may well be relics of typographical errors in the 1892 “borrowing” of her work.
If “Abecedary” is indeed an error, it’s easy to imagine how it happened. A glossary such as Greenaway’s is itself an abecedary of a sort, an “abecedary” (from “a, b, c, d”) being a book designed to teach children the alphabet (or simply an alphabetical list of words). It’s entirely possible that the first page of Greenaway’s book contained the word “abecedary,” and someone down the line who didn’t recognize the word took it for the name of a flower and simply made up a “secret meaning” for it. As for “abatina,” your guess is as good as mine.