Not deferential enough: Pansy

Posted Tuesday, April 23, 2013 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Pansy

by Gina Hamilton

It's mid-April, and there's a fair chance that we shall have cold rain, snow or at least below freezing temperatures before the end of the month.  And in all the gardening centers, one flower takes center stage and shines.

I refer, of course, to the pansy.

The pansy is a combination of European Johnny Jump Ups, also called violas, with wild violets.  The result is a big headed purple, yellow, or multicolored biennial flower, typically grown as an annual.  Together with spring bulbs and certain flowering shrubs, such as forsythia, they produce the first spring color in a forlorn garden.  You can plant them right in the beds and window-boxes; no fussing is required.  They'll keep blooming through June with the most minimal care.

Which is why I was thinking the other day that pansies really got a strange and undeserved reputation.

In colloquial terms, a pansy is a sissy, a mama's boy, a frail, unmasculine, unathletic male child who may grow up to be ::gulp:: gay.  A group of young boys may say, "Let's not ask Johnny to play football, he's such a pansy, he's always afraid he's going to get hurt."

Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's a wise child who avoids dangerous activities, even in the face of public ridicule. But it doesn't describe the actual pansy, which is really a robust little thing, for all its showy prettiness.  Pansies are the hockey goaltenders of the plant world.  You can dump them in your beds and your window-boxes and they'll be fine, even if it snows. 

So why did the sissy type of pansy get associated with the flower?

Well, it didn't.  Or at least not directly.

The insult "pansy" actually comes from the French "pensée", which is the past tense of "to think", but is also a feminine reflexive.  This term came about in the mid-fifteenth century, and essentially, it was used pejoratively to describe a man who thinks too much (like a woman is the intimation).  Thinking men were not brawny, active, robust men, therefore they were thought to be slightly effeminate.  It wasn't until 1929 that the term "pansy" came to mean sissy boy, or homosexual male.

The name of the flower was derived from the same French origins when the plant was hybridized.  Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet, daughter of the Lord of Tankerville, collected and cultivated every sort of Viola tricolor (commonly, heartsease or Johnny Jump Up) she could procure in her father's garden at Walton-upon-Thames in Surrey. Together with her gardener, William Richardson, a large variety of plants was produced via cross-breeding. In 1812, she introduced her pansies to the horticultural world.  She had an instant hit, and pansies became one of the most popular plants in the world.  Lady Mary called them "Pansies", a bastardization of the French "pensées", because it would be easier for the British to pronounce (and they were probably going to pronounce them like that anyway, so why fight it), and also because in 1812, all things French were exceedingly bad ton, the Napoleonic Wars still going on and all.

Just a year later, there were over 300 different varieties of Lady Mary's little flower.  In the language of flowers, pansies stand for "loving thoughts".

Interestingly, the pansy is also the symbol for "freethought", a philosophical viewpoint that holds opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, and not authority, tradition, or other dogmas.  Not too terribly feminine, that.

So the poor sissy who is referred to as a pansy will one day grow up to be a man who thinks on his own, rather than one who accepts the dictates of society.  If only the boys understood that when they were young.

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