Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his May 8th column, he looks at the history of the name Iris.
Give someone a rainbow of flowers for Mother’s Day.
May 8 is Iris Day, celebrating flowers of the genus Iris. It’s also a legal holiday in Brussels, Belgium, where the regional flag features a yellow iris.
Iris is the Greek word for “rainbow.” Linguists trace it back to an Indo-European word for “bend,” referring to a rainbow’s distinctive curve in the sky.
Ancient Greeks personified Iris as a goddess. Iris was messenger for the chief Greek deities and served them nectar on Mount Olympus. Romans adopted her into their pantheon as special agent of goddess Juno. Iris is featured in both the Iliad by Greek poet Homer and the Aeneid by Latin poet Virgil, two of literature’s most famous works.
The flower’s been called iris since medieval times because it comes in a rainbow variety of colors. “Iris” has also been the colored part of the eye since the early 15th century.
Many assume Iris’ use as a girl’s name was taken from the flower, just as names like Hazel, Heather and Holly were inspired by plants. However, British historian George Redmonds believes the first rare use of Iris in the 18th century was after the goddess. Iris fit in with Doris and Phyllis, Greek names revived by 17th century poets. Iris then helped inspire other “flower” names.
Redmonds’ theory is supported by the oldest Iris in the 1850 United States census (first listing all free residents by name), 88-year-old Iris Amelotte, a Black woman born in Africa living with a white family in New Orleans. Iris was probably a freed slave named by a former owner. Some slave owners showed off their learning by giving slaves classical names like Hercules and Venus.