Where do the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from?

With roots in ancient astrology and alchemy, the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols may ultimately derive from ancient Greek abbreviations for the names of gods.

This week, President Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s “protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity,” as the New York Times reported

Covering the story, many media outlets have presented images of gender-neutral bathroom signs such as:

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Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant bathroom sign, courtesy of adasigndepot.com

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This symbol, by no means universally embraced by the transgender community, seeks to depict non-binary gender identity by joining the classical sex symbols for male (♂) and female (♀) with a combined male-female one (⚦).

Where do these male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from, anyway?

Continue reading “Where do the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from?”

“Sequoia”: a giant-sized controversy

Earlier this week, heavy storms and flooding toppled the famous Pioneer Cabin Tree, a giant sequoia whose trunk cars once drove through, in California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Before it was carved out in the 1880s to attract tourists, a forest fire had already hollowed out part of its trunk, apparently resembling a log cabin, hence the nickname Pioneer Cabin Tree. But why do we call this kind of tree a sequoia?

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The Pioneer Cabin Tree, also known as the Tunnel Tree, in 2006. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

American originals

In 1847, Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher, while reorganizing and reclassifying plant species at the University of Vienna, created a new genus, which he called Sequoia. Endlicher’s Sequoia originally referred to redwoods, a close cousin to what we now know as and call the giant sequoia, or Sequoiadendron giganteum.

The common and long-running explanation is that Endlicher chose Sequoia to honor Sequoyah (1770-1843), a Tuskegee-born Cherokee silversmith who invented the Cherokee syllabary, which allowed for reading and writing in his native Cherokee tongue. Put simplistically, a syllabary uses written symbols to represent all the different syllables in a language, whereas an alphabet uses symbols to stand for all of the individual sounds. In Cherokee, for instance, Sequoyah wrote his name ᏎᏉᏯ, each symbol standing in for the syllables making up his name: Se-quo-ya. Sequoyah’s name comes from the Cherokee, Sikwayi, whose meaning and origin is unknown.

Sequoyah’s invention is a truly impressive, rare, and consequential feat, but author Gary Lowe thinks this etymology is quite the tall tale. Endlicher doesn’t mention Sequoyah anywhere in his papers and notes, but he was a philologist, including publishing a linguistic text on Chinese. Lowe ultimately roots the Sequoyah origin to an anonymous submission of an article in an 1856 edition of the agricultural magazine, The Country Gentleman. The author associates the name Sequoia with Sequoyah, for whom he concludes, approvingly, the giant tree was named. Subsequent writers and editors took up, and spread, this association, assuming Endlicher intended the name on the basis of his linguistic reputation. And so the explanation stuck.

One after the other

Lowe thinks Endlicher actually named Sequoia after the Latin verb sequor, to follow, source of words like sequence. Two other botanists, in fact, looked to the same sequor in the late 19th-century. The first suggested Endlicher picked Sequoia because the name followed in sequence after its original genus name, Taxodium; the second because redwoods followed after its extinct forbears. Lowe, rather, concludes Endlicher supplied Sequoia because the number of seeds its cones produce completes a larger sequence relative to those in its scientific suborder. 

Among giants

As far as the record is concerned, Europeans first encountered coast redwoods in 1769 – and the giant sequoia not until 1833. In the 1850s, British botanist John Lindley dubbed these trees Wellingtonia giganteum, honoring the Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, famed for his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. “This sat poorly with the Americas,” as Doug Harper at the Online Etymology Dictionary diplomatically sums it up, though Wellingtonia persists in British English. French botanist Joseph Decaisne reclassified the tree under Endlicher’s Sequoia in 1854, and it wasn’t until 1939 that the American botanist John Bucholz determined giant sequoias were a distinct genus from the coast redwood. Bucholz nodded to Endlicher with his new name, Sequoiadendron giganteum. (Dendron comes from the Greek for “tree,” giganteum from the Greek for “giant.”)

Names aside, there is no controversy when it comes to the majesty of sequoias, reaching hundreds of feet in the air and spanning thousands of year in age. Perhaps we can honor the likes of Pioneer Cabin Tree more directly, more immediately, more simply, and look to a name the great American naturalist John Muir once used for the sequoia: Big Tree.

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Looms, lilies, and lifespans: The metaphorical stamina of “stamina”

In recent campaigning, Donald Trump has been claiming Hillary Clinton “lacks the physical and mental stamina” to do the work of the presidency. His attacks in no way stand up to the facts, but one thing that does “stand up” is stamina, at least etymologically speaking.

A well-planted metaphor

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests stamina (in Latin form) in 1542, when it referred to the “natural constitution” of an organism, a kind of inborn vitality determining how long it would live and its capacity for resisting disease and hardship. Around 1676, stamina, now as an English word, was naming the “rudiments” or “essential qualities” of an organism, later extended figuratively, say, to an institution or movement. By 1726, as found in the letters of Jonathan Swift, stamina jumped to physical “vigor,” especially in the sense of withstanding the likes of illness and fatigue. Come the 1800s, it reached “moral and intellectual robustness and endurance.”

Originally, stamina was a plural noun both in English and Latin, its source. The singular is stamen. (English has been using stamina in the singular since the 18th century.) We are familiar with stamen in botanical contexts: it’s the part of the plant that makes the pollen. Flemish anatomist Adriaan van den Spiegel is credited for first employing it in this modern, scientific sense in 1633. And thanks to English Bishop John Wilkins, stamen pollinated the English tongue as such by 1668.

We should note, though, that centuries earlier, Pliny, the Roman scholar, lent Latin’s stamen to the lily’s prominent pollen producer; Hesychius of Alexandria, a Greek lexicographer, used its Greek counterpart (στῆμα, stoma) of plants early on as well.

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The lily’s stamens, or “stamina.” Image by Mira Pavlakovic, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Common “threads”

So, what’s the common thread? Well, it’s just that. Latin’s stamen means “thread,” specifically the “thread of the warp in the upright loom.” The warp acts as a kind of foundation for the weave, which points us to stamen’s literal, base meaning: “that which stands.” Stand is the keyword here, as stamen and stand are ultimately cousins, sharing an ancient ancestor in *sta-, “stand.” This root is a mind-bogglingly prolific root, seen in Afghanistan, establish, obstacle, steed, and system, to name a paltry few derivatives.

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The vertical threads are the warp, which the Romans called the “stamen.” Image by Tom Pickering, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Pliny, apparently, saw the lily’s stamen as a “thread,” as did van den Spiegel again many years later. But the ancient Romans also saw their mythology in stamen. They used stamen for the “thread of life spun by the Fates,” imagined as three sisters who spun, measured, and cut the threads that controlled the lives and destinies of humanity. In the 18th century, English writers enjoyed using stamen in this very sense, also broadening it to one’s “inborn vitality” much like we saw in the history of stamina.

And the common thread for all of English’s stamina and stamen is metaphor. A plant stamen can resemble a thread. The rudiments of an entity, that early stamina, are its foundation: the warp of a weave. And stamina was once understood as one’s inherent makeup, measuring out how long one would live, like those threads of the Fates.

In the 2016 election, nothing has seem fated – except for the stamina we’ve all shown in making it this far in what continues to be an unprecedented presidential campaign.

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