The Grammarphobia Blog

Horticultural doppelgängers

Q: Can “doppelgänger” refer to a lookalike plant as well as a person who looks like somebody else? Specifically, the query applies to cultivars in the genus Hosta. Sometime leaves of two or more different cultivars look alike, though they are not of the same parentage.

A: We see no reason why “doppelgänger” can’t be used loosely to mean a lookalike Hosta cultivar.

Oxford Dictionaries Online defines “doppelgänger” as an “apparition or double of a living person,” but it includes several examples that refer to things as doppelgängers:

  • “Nestled deep within the human brain lies a pair of small, almond-shaped structures that bear the Greek name for their doppelgänger: amygdala.”
  • “Its doppelgänger among the desserts is the chocolate fundido, a sticky, spicy fondue of melted Oaxacan chocolate, served with a platter of cookies, churros, and fruit for dipping.”
  • “So what happens if a winery produces both world-class Burgundian doppelgängers—Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (and throw in Riesling, too)—but is half a globe away?”

By the way, we’re using an umlaut over the “a” in “doppelgänger” because many standard dictionaries list that spelling first, followed by the umlaut-free version as an equal variant. Either spelling is standard, though our email spellchecker disagrees and recognizes only “doppelgänger.”

English borrowed the term in the 19th century from the German doppelgänger or the Dutch dubbelganger, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which translates the original terms as “double-goer.” The modern German dictionaries in our library define doppelgänger as a double.

An early English version, “double-ganger,” appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830): “If he turn his cloak, or plaid, he will obtain the full sight which he desires, and may probably find it to be his own fetch or wraith, or double-ganger.” We’ve expanded the citation, which is in a footnote.

The usual English term now, “doppelgänger” or “doppelganger,” showed up two decades later, minus the umlaut. The earliest OED example is from an 1851 entry in the Denham Tracts, a series of pamphlets, published from 1846 to 1859, by the English folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham:

“Hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes.” The citation is excerpted from a long list of ghostly terms. The Folklore Society in London reprinted the pamphlets as the Denham Tracts in 1895. An index at the end includes this entry: “Dopple-gangers, a class of spirits,” and points to the page with the excerpt cited by the OED.

Getting back to the garden, “Doppelgänger” (or “Doppelganger”) is the name of a two-tiered coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, also known as “Doubledecker” (or “Double Decker”) and “Double Walker,” reflecting the spooky etymology of “doppelgänger.”

Finally, Michael Pollan uses “doppelgänger” to mean a botanical lookalike in “Weeds Are Us,” an article in the New York Times Magazine, Nov. 5, 1989:

Standing at the forefront of evolution, weeds are nature’s ambulance chasers, carpetbaggers and confidence men. Virtually every crop in general cultivation has its weed impostor, a kind of botanical doppelgänger that has evolved to mimic the appearance as well as the growth rate of the cultivated crop and so insure its survival. Some of these impostors, like wild oats, are so versatile that they can alter their appearance depending on the crop they are imitating—an agricultural fifth column.

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