Monday, December 5, 2011


Fuchsia was a concept quite foreign to me until I met and married Mrs. Eternal Optimist, whose color palette is hundreds of times more detailed than mine. I have a very typical male "color wheel" in my head, which is to say, not much of one:

Reddish - Greenish/Bluish - Yellowish - Black/Brownish - White/Grayish.

That's it. All other color names confuse me, more or less. For instance, I know what purple looks like, but violet? Are they the same? And I am not clear on whether purple is close to red, or brown, or blue. Or all three.

Fortunately I can learn things if they appear in dictionaries, encyclopedias, graphs or recondite articles. So I had to look up fuchsia. Which is a fascinating word, whatever color it is.

fuchsia [ˈfjuːʃə] [Noun]

1. any onagraceous shrub of the mostly tropical genus Fuchsia, widely cultivated for their showy drooping purple, red, or white flowers
2. Also called California fuchsia, a North American onagraceous plant, Zauschneria californica, with tubular scarlet flowers
3.a. a reddish-purple to purplish-pink color
b. (as adjective) a fuchsia dress

Fuchsia, the dictionary tells me, is of the Onagraceae family, which is "characterized byherbaceous plants having simple leaves, showy flowers with four sepals and four petals, and fruitin the form of a berry or a capsule." Relatives include the clarkia, evening primrose, and thewillow herb.

Fuchsia is an attractive and popular color for lady's wear -

But be careful. It is possible to go very wrong with fuchsia.

The word derives from the name of the French monk and botanist, Leonhart Fuchs, who discovered the plant in Hispaniola in 1703. This makes the word relatively young and virile, and as with most such words, there are several competing spellings: fuschia, fuscia, fucsia. As far as EO can tell it usually takes at least 5 centuries before a word's spelling simmers down.

It seems that "fewshia" would be the closest representation of how people actually say the word right now, at least in the United States. The spelling, "Fuchsia," is historically consistent, since it tracks the spelling of Mr. Fuchs name.

I'm in favor of the historically consistent spelling, for several reason. As this is my blog, I will elaborate.

First, English is filled with words that don't "sound out;" the letter values we give the words don't actually translate into an accurate rendition of how we say the word. This tendency is much derided, both by native speakers and foreigners.

EO, however, finds the habit heartwarming. It is much like visiting with elderly friends and family on Sunday. Even though they can barely hear, and conversation is almost impossible, their remembrance of things past fills one's heart with a longing for good and happy times, honest and kindhearted friendships.

The process reminds you that you are not alone; your life is neither the beginning nor the end. You are just here for a little while, and have a duty to those who came before and after you to be kind, gentle, honest and courageous.

Thinking about old words reminds me of the Venerable Bede, who apparently wore something that could pass for Fuchsia while translating the gospel of John into the Anglo-Saxon tongue, circa 735 A.D.

Contrary to my generation's world-view, we did not invent the English language ourselves. We received it from others who were gracious enough to love us, feed us, change our diapers, and teach us to speak.

Second, there are plenty of alternate spellings in use, but none of them are overwhelmingly better than "fuchsia." Spelling it "fewshia," as it is currently pronounced, would be a visual abomination. We forget that writing is ultimately a visual art. No sense in being ugly.

Third, unless an odd spelling causes auto accidents or results in the death of special forces operatives, better to leave well enough alone. Pronunciations change constantly, and the less you monkey with changes in spelling the less confusion you sow among native speakers.

Baffling spellings that reflect ancient pronunciations are a small price to pay for having a highly adaptive living language. Given its history of invasion and dominion by foreign tongues, it is a wonder English survived at all. We should not begrudge our Mother Tongue her idiosyncrasies.

One of the results of reducing a language to writing is to slow down the rate at which the language changes. The consequence is that generations of people far removed are able to speak to each other relatively easily through the written word. You would probably not understand one word in 50 of the Middle English spoken by Geoffrey Chaucer, but we can read his Canterbury Tales with a surprising level of comprehension.

If we were constantly to change spellings to reflect each generation's different pronunciation of words, written English would change as swiftly as spoken English. That would be a very sad thing. Shakespeare is much more enjoyable as part of my native tongue, however far removed, than as a foreign language.

So then, I say leave the spelling of Fuchsia alone. It honors Leonhart Fuchs and has the benefit of consistency and some logic. Leaving it alone does require us to learn to overcome the slight divergence between the written word "Fuchsia" and its actual pronunciation.

If this proves a problem, here is a prayer from St. Bede to help.

I am sure the English speaking peoples, having thrice in the past century saved humanity from the forces of evil (the two World Wars and the Cold War), and having traveled to the moon and back on a whim and a dare, are up to this trifling difficulty.


  1. I am happy that the EO is finding more time to pursue these kind of interests. I liked Venerable Bede in fuchsia but then I would like him in any color. SRF

  2. What, you mean that words can hide mysteries? That meaning is under the surface? That our mechanistic view might not cover all the bases? Singular.

  3. Who knew? Words are deeply mysterious and filled with veiled power.

  4. I memorised that prayer when I was younger. It's sublime and one of my later mother's favourite's too. It was even one of her favorites as well. And she liked fewsha as a colour and as a color too.
    As a guy I always suggest a combination of cerise and chiffon. I don't know what that is but it seems to put me safely past the nylon blue/red/green thing.

  5. How wonderful! I'd never seen the prayer before; now I will be memorizing it!