Wort Plant Names in Contemporary English

Marco Bagli


The world of plants has exerted its fascination on researchers in linguistics for a long time. Botanic nomenclature was paramount in investigating categorization (e.g., Berlin, Breedlove, and Raven 1973), and in understanding the relationship between an individual and its environment. In the field of Anglo-Saxon studies, research into the lexicon of plants is of interest for at least two reasons. Firstly, plant names encode a wealth of information on the cultural system that has produced them by mirroring religious beliefs and dietary or medicinal practices. Secondly, this analysis provides insights into the psychological processes and linguistic strategies used to encode nature into language (e.g., Krischke 2013; 2009; Biggam 2003). In contemporary English, the names of ‘wort plants’ follow similar patterns to Old English plant names (Prosyannikova 2020). The lexeme wort is considered archaic by the OED, and it is listed as a suffix by Cambridge Dictionary. It derives from Old English wyrt, meaning plant, root. In contemporary English it is mainly found as the second element of compounds, such as lungwort, mugwort, but also in isolation as an independent morpheme. The present study aims at identifying and analyzing the occurrences of wort and wort-plants in contemporary English. Firstly, I will verify the occurrences of wort-plants in online corpora of English (COCA and BNC) and their frequency of usage. Secondly, I will provide a description of their morphological structure and semantic motivation. Following Blank (1997) and Krischke (2013), I will argue for a metonymic motivation of wort-plant names. Lastly, I will integrate the analysis of corpus data with a lexicographic analysis of their entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, to explore their referents in the two major varieties of English.


wort; plant-names; metaphor; metonymy; encyclopedic knowledge

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.13136/2281-4582/2021.i18.1037


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