I have a new set of instructions from the research elves, communicated to me through a spokeself, who apparently lost a round of one-potato, two-potato. I have to warn them when there’s a word-origin question in the works. Apparently my suspicion of the etymology game makes me a little testy and inclined to throw things — phone books, sandwiches, whatever handy — when I think the academics are selling us yet another idiotic bill of goods. Sometimes I’m positive the Oxford English Dictionary was written during a particularly vivid mushroom trip. Anyway, in a compromise, I get to answer word questions in batches and the elves get that week off. And I get to clean up the well-appointed Alice suite of offices when I'm through. So here we go.
Dear Matthew Alice: Why do flowers grow in beds? —Sarah Lopez, Monroe Clark Middle School
“Flower bed” is a ripe example of the word-searcher’s art. Best they can tell us, back in our very fuzzy past was the Indo-European word bhedh, meaning “to dig.” Bhedh, dig, garden, flowers...that almost makes sense. Too much to suit the word nerds, it turns out, who insist on making it less believable. What our fuzzy ancestors were digging was a “hollow sleeping place in the ground.” Perhaps one day, when Wildebert the Bald saw his neighbor Merv the Short digging in his yard, Wildebert said, “Hey, Gwinevere, the Balds are digging one of those, new king-size bhedhs.” When Merv planted geraniums instead, maybe the name just stuck. We’ll get no more clues from Etymologyville. We’ve planted flowers in our beds for at least 1000 years.