English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A lion, a flower, and a king

Q: Is Leonotis, the plant genus, related etymologically to Leonidas, the Spartan king?

A: The botanical Latin name of Leonotis, a genus of flowering tropical plants native to Africa and India, ultimately comes from the classical Greek terms for “lion” and “ear.” Not surprisingly, a common name for it is “lion’s ear.”

As far as we can tell, the German botanist Christiaan Hendrik Persoon was the first person to use the term. In Synopsis Plantarum, Book 2 (1807), he lists Leonotis as a subgenus of Phlomis, a genus of shrubby and herbaceous plants native to the Mediterranean.

A few years later, the Scottish botanist Robert Brown listed Leonotis as a genus in Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van Diemen (Introduction to the Flora of New Holland and Van Diemen’s Island), an 1810 treatise on the plants of mainland Australia and Tasmania.

Leonotis and Phlomis are each now considered a genus of the family Lamiaceae.

Neither Persoon nor Brown explain why they named the plant Leonotis, but the term probably refers to the shape of the corolla, or petals.

In this image of the species Leonotis leonurus, the corolla also looks a bit like the tip of a lion’s tail—and “lion’s tail” is another common name for the genus.

The botanical Latin name ultimately comes from the classical Greek terms for “lion” (λέων, leon) and “ear” (ὠτός, otos, the genitive form of οὖς, ous).

We’ve seen no evidence that it’s derived from Leonidas, the fifth century BC king of Sparta. However, the king as well as the plant had leonine names. The king’s name in ancient Greek, λέωνῐ́δᾱς, means “son of a lion.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.