Monday, 5 March 2012

Colourful Names: Saffron

File:Saffron gatherersSantorini.jpg

I can't believe I let World Book Day pass without mentioning it. It is such a great initiative to get children to read more, and I'm all for projects that encourage reading. One of my favourite books as a child was Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay. I must have been 12 or there abouts when I read the book, so the details of the plot are a bit hazy. What I still remember very clearly is the main character's name, Saffron.

Saffron 'Saffy' -  A name often associated with the world's most expensive spice, Saffron is not as one dimentional as it might first appear. Saffron has been used for thousands of years as a spice, a dye, for medicinal purposes and fragrances. In the early civilisations it was considered a valuable commodity, and was used by wealthy Romans and Egyptians, including Cleopatra, in their baths. Indeed its history is pre-historic -  fragments of saffron have been found in cave paintings dating back 50, 000 years in the Persian Empire.

It comes from the saffron crocus, a small purple flower with three red stigmas. Although these particular crocuses flower in the autumn, the ones in my garden come alive in the winter, sometimes peeking out from the snow. They are delightful splashes of colour in an often grey season.

Saffron's etymology is rather uncertain. It can be traced back to the Old French word safran, but it may have originated from the Arabic word za'farān, which comes from asfar meaning 'yellow'. Alternatively, it could come from the Hebrew word 'thread' or from the Persian 'having yellow leaves'. Its connection to yellow remains today. It was used in the Indian national flag to represent courage and sacrifice, and is the colour worn by Buddhist monks, sometimes said to symbolise humility. 

Lastly, Saffron as a name is not all that obscure or unused, although it remains somewhat hidden. It was at #370 in England & Wales in 2010, with 123 girls being given the name. To put it into context, on the rise Pippa and much loved Beatrix were each used only 124 times. Additionally, more mainstream names like Stella, Saskia and Lyra are found lower down in the England & Wales chart (= #372). Maybe Saffron is one to watch out for? I would like to think so.

Image: Saffron Gatherers.