Q: I’m a big fan of Beverley Nichols. In one of his garden books (I can’t remember which), he suggests that the name “daisy” refers to the “day’s eye,” presumably the sun. This sounds too good to be true.
A: We’re also fans of Nichols’s garden books. In Sunlight on the Lawn (1956), the last of his three books about the gardens of Merry Hall, he writes: “The daisy—the ‘day’s eye’—is a token of virginity.”
His suggestion that “daisy” originated as “day’s eye” may sound too good to be true, but it’s perfectly sound. The Oxford English Dictionary says the Old English name of the flower, daeges eage, does indeed refer to the “day’s eye” or “eye of day.”
The OED explains that the common name for Bellis perennis, the European daisy, is an “allusion to the appearance of the flower, and to its closing the ray, so as to conceal the yellow disk, in the evening, and opening again in the morning.”
Here’s the dictionary’s description: “a familiar and favourite flower of the British Isles and Europe generally, having small flat flower-heads with yellow disk and white ray (often tinged with pink), which close in the evening; it grows abundantly on grassy hills, in meadows, by roadsides, etc., and blossoms nearly all the year round; many varieties are cultivated in gardens.”
Nichols is on less firm ground when he describes the flower as “a token of virginity.” He’s alluding here to another common English name for the daisy, the “Margaret flower.”
Over the years, the daisy has been linked to the maiden St. Margaret of Antioch as well as the not-so-maiden but reformed St. Margaret of Cortona. But the OED says the “Margaret flower” apparently got its name from the pearl sense of the Old French margarite or margerite, which meant both pearl and daisy. (In modern French, a daisy is a marguerite.)
We might add that the daisy is a favorite of ours too and grows prolifically in the meadows around our home in rural New England. “Daisy” is also the name of our four-month-old Golden Retriever puppy as well as a neighbor’s Jersey cow.
Interestingly, according to the OED, the identification of the flower with the name “Margaret” led to the “use of Daisy punningly as a pet-form of Margaret, although later currency as a personal name owes much to the 19th-cent. vogue for flower names as personal names.”
The earliest published reference for an Old English version of “daisy” (the flower) dates from around 1000, according to the OED. Here’s a Middle English citation from The Legend of a Good Woman (circa 1385), one of Chaucer’s longest poems: “Wele by reson men it calle may / The dayeseye, or ellis the eye of day.” (In modern English: “Well by reason men may call it the daisy, or else the eye of day.”)
In Word Origins and How We Know Them (2005), Anatoly Liberman wonders who coined this word: “A child discovering the world, Adam-like, creating naive and beautiful metaphors? Or a farmer who needed a new plant name and used the resources of his mother tongue?”
“Can we imagine a golden age when all words were as young and transparent as ‘day’s eye’?” Liberman writes. “If such an age existed, it was one of perfect harmony: things revealed their nature in words, and words captured the most salient features of things. Happy cave dwellers exchanged nosegays of day’s eyes, and no one needed lessons in etymology.”
Of course Liberman, who teaches linguistics, etymology, and folklore at the University of Minnesota, might find himself out of a job in such a world.
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