In a Word: Gladiators with Gladioluses

Keep your eye out for colorful ‘little swords’ this month, and imagine the cheers of the Colosseum.

Gladiator brandishes a gladiolus.

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This week’s In a Word comes from Zoe Hanquier, the Post’s editorial intern for the summer of 2020. As always, remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

The word gladiator doesn’t tend to spark comforting images — bloodied bodies, the crumbling Colosseum, a brooding Russell Crowe. To most, the July-blooming flower gladiolus doesn’t come to mind, despite the etymological and historical connection between the two.

Both words share the Latin root gladius, which means “sword.”

We first find the word gladiator in English — taken directly from Latin — in the mid-15th century, meaning “Roman swordsman” or “fighter in public games,” but the practice of gladiatorial fighting started centuries earlier. Historians believe the first gladiator battle happened in the 3rd century B.C. as part of a funeral ceremony to honor a distinguished aristocrat. But soon, gladiators, who were often slaves or prisoners, were fighting to the death in the Roman Empire for the entertainment of thousands.

The word gladiolus arrived in the 1st century. Coined by Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and author of Naturalis Historia, gladiolus literally means “small sword,” referring to the sword-like leaves of the gladiolus species Pliny knew. The flower is part of the iris family and is associated with 40th wedding anniversaries, honor, and infatuation.

Some believe that gladiolus blooms were thrown onto victorious gladiators as celebration, much like the bouquets gifted at the end of performances today. The Dutch continued this tradition into the 1950s and ’60s with successful athletes, but the practice petered out. However, Dutch road bicycle racer and 1978 world champion Gerrie Knetemann is rumored to have invented the phrase de dood of de gladiolen — “death or the gladiolus” — in the ’70s, referring to Roman history and Dutch practice. Louis van Gaal, Dutch trainer of the Manchester United football team, famously said “it is death or the gladiolus,” meaning “all or nothing,” in reference to a difficult match his team later won in 2015. Gaal is credited with bringing the phrase to English.

Gladiolus has changed some since its original naming. Old English shortened it to gladdon, although that word now refers more specifically to a different plant — the “stinking iris” or “roast beef plant,” named for its odor. But we find it returning to its Latin root as gladiol in the mid-15th century — around the same time gladiator was cementing its place in English.

Today, the flower is mostly known as a gladiolus, but there are variations. A few plant-lovers refer to a single flower as a gladiola. Some call a bouquet of them gladiolas, others gladioluses or gladioli. Smart florists skip the linguistic debate in favor of glads.

Regardless of what you call them, you can enjoy their colorful bloom this month and perhaps imagine victorious gladiators being showered with them.

(Andy Hollandbeck; Shutterstock)

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