QCan you tell me where “geranium” comes from? – A. G., Pittsburgh

A: Many of the plants in the geranium family have long, thin, tapering fruits that resemble birds’ beaks. The Greeks, impressed by this resemblance, named the wild geranium “geranion,” “little crane,” the diminutive of “geranos,” “crane.” “Geranium” is now the scientific name of the genus that includes the wild geranium, whose common English name is “cranesbill.”

Other members of the family have been given scientific names modeled on “geranium.” “Erodium” was named for the long-billed heron (Greek “erodios”), but it is commonly called “storksbill” in English. The common or garden geranium is really a member of a related genus, “Pelargonium,” named for the stork (Greek “pelargos”).

Q Where does the term “Lotusland” come from? – J. H., Chelmsford, Mass.

A: “Lotusland” refers to a dreamy, indolent, self-indulgent place that has lost all touch with reality. In the United States it is usually applied to Los Angeles or southern California in mockery of its tendency to embrace sometimes wacky political and social trends. Canadians apply to the same term to their western province of British Columbia for the same reasons.

The term originates in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.” On their long voyage home to Greece from the Trojan War, the hero Odysseus and his men come upon the land of the lotus-eaters. After some of the men eat the food, they forget their homes and wives and want to abandon their hard life of fighting and pulling at their oars in favor of a comfortable, labor-free existence. However, Odysseus drags them back to the boat and they resume their journey.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson describes the place in his 1832 poem The Lotos-Eaters as a place “In which it seemed always afternoon./All around the coast the languid air did swoon,/Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.”

The lotus here is probably not the water lily, but the buckthorn, a shrubby plant with a sweet juice that is used for making candy. The plant is also known as the jujube and has given its name to the sticky candy that’s often sold in movie theaters. It’s rather fitting that generations of moviegoers have achieved their own escape from the everyday reality of their lives while munching on a type of “lotus.”

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition.

Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster’s Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, Mass. 01102.

Q I was taught in school that “if” should not be used to introduce a noun clause, but that “whether” should be used instead. Is this still true? – M. D., Detroit

A: According to our evidence, both “whether” and “if” are acceptable introductory words for noun clauses that come after such verbs as “question,” “doubt,” “see,” “ask,” “wonder,” “know,” etc. (as in “We don’t know if/whether they will come”), and both are used by respected writers of English. Unfortunately, the history of English is peppered with unfounded condemnations from prescriptive grammarians, and this is one of those cases where the prescriptive grammarian has confused the rest of us, even hundreds of years later.

It was apparently an 18th century dictionary editor by the name of J. Johnson (not to be confused with Samuel Johnson) who originally deemed the use of “if” in such cases a “Scotticism” and therefore, by his logic, a lesser kind of English. What he did not realize was that although writers of Scottish English were using both “if” and “whether” in such cases, so were respected writers of his own English. The use can be found in the British Authorized Version, or King James Version, of the Bible, as well as in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

Since Mr. Johnson, the reviews by commentators have been mixed, although most recent writers on English usage have not objected to the use of “if” in such contexts. It appears now that “whether” is used somewhat more often in formal situations, but there is no question that “if” is also entirely standard.

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster’s Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, Mass. 01102.


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