Dandelion week: history of the little lion’s tooth.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has been used medicinally for as long as people have bothered to write about such things. It might be native to the Middle East (but no one’s really sure) and it’s traveled to just about every corner of the temperate world by now.

Maude Grieve says in her Modern Herbal:

The name of the genus, Taraxacum, is derived from the Greek taraxos (disorder), and akos (remedy), on account of the curative action of the plant.

Now, Mrs. Grieve’s etymology is poetic for an herbalist, but the Oxford English Dictionary disagrees:

Medieval Latin from Arabic, ultimately Persian. The Synonymia Arabo-Latina of Gerard of Cremona (died 1189) has ‘Tarasacon, species cichorei’. This appears to have been a corruption or misreading of the Arabic name tarakhshaqoq or tarkhshaqoq, itself according to the Burhan-i-Kati (native Persian lexicon), originally an arabicized form of the Persian talkh chakok ‘bitter herb’.

Dandelion is of course from the French “lion’s tooth” (dent de lion), but these days the French just call it pissenlit, “piss-the-bed”—which also happens to be an old-time English name for the plant. In 1565 John Hall wrote in his Courte of Vertu, “Lyons tooth, That Chyldren call Pysbed.” (OED entry for pissabed.)

Pissabed. Remember that. It’s a pretty good first clue to how dandelion works.

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