The Mystery of Saffron

A friend of mine recently had a baby girl and named her Saffron. It got me thinking… what does it really mean?

Of course we know that it relates to a spice, a plant, a color. When people choose the name they love it for those virtues alone. It makes us think of exotic places and scents. Spice colors evoke the same kind of rich imagery that jewel tones do. A lot of us feel really drawn by that. And Saffron, like many associated names, gives us a warm feeling. However, I wanted to dig deeper.

Most sources acknowledge the ancient roots Saffron has. We have to, since most of us associate the spice with locales like India. One of my favorite online etymology sources traces:

saffron:  c.1200, from Old French safran (12c.), from Medieval Latin safranum (cf. Italian zafferano, Spanish azafran), ultimately from Arabic za’faran, of unknown origin.

I was thinking how unfortunate it would be if we truly could not trace Arabic za’faran beyond this. These old languages have so many scholars who can interpret them accurately from ancient days and archaic usage… did truly no one know where “saffron” came from?

But, yes, safran was one incarnation, and reminded me of the surname Safran. It saw use in various European cultures, because it was an “occupational name for a spicer or a nickname for someone with reddish yellow hair” (-Oxford). That makes perfect sense, actually, since Saffron’s mommy has red hair. Saffron’s brother looks reddish-blond, himself. In this sense, Saffron would be a fresh choice in place of Ginger. I digress– I still did not have an answer to my question on its origin.

This Persian site, which sells saffron, describes a fascinating history of its use. One thing they said which I think is interesting to note:

Most English sources have known saffron coined from word entitled “Al-Safran” and Arabic term. But, accuracy of this subject seems strange, for, saffron dates back over 10,000 years and it is aboriginal plant of Alborz mountain range and Central Asia. As a matter of fact, rhythm of this word is not Arabic and principally, most names which are ended in Arabic language to “AN”, have Farsi root like Mehrjan, Jaljalan, etc.

Next I did what any serious researcher does– I hit Wikipedia. Their etymology on the plant’s page stated:

The ultimate origin of the English word saffron is, like that of the cultivated saffron clone itself, of somewhat uncertain origin. It immediately stems from the Latin word safranum via the 12th-century Old French term safran. Safranum derives from the Persian intercessor زعفران, or za’ferân. Old Persian is the first language in which the use of saffron in cooking is recorded, with references dating back thousands of years.

A-ha! Now we were getting somewhere. (Thanks again, Wikipedia.) Okay, so a citation was still needed on that, and Wiki has a bad reputation for being unreliable, but now I had a lead.

To follow up on that lead, I used An Etymological Dictionary of Persian, English and other Indo-European Languages. The entry there for za’faran states:

saffron, a plant with purple flowers and orange stigmas... "za'faran" 
is from Persian "zar-paran: with gold petals".

This was the “eureka” moment I was looking for– descriptive translation to explain the root word(s) of “saffron”. I knew it couldn’t be a mystery. And what a lovely meaning– “with gold petals”!

Indeed, Persian root “zar” [ زد ] does mean “gold” (as well as silver, wealth, money, riches, ornamentation– basically, valuable). I’m already familiar with this through my onomastic studies. I was having a hard time verifying that faran or paran [عفران] referred to petals, however.

When I cross-referenced it against other Persian names (such as Niloufar and Nilipar— both meaning “blue petal”), you can see confirmation in faran/paran referring to petals. The “nil-” prefix refers to azure, deep blue, or indigo. It is shortened from Sanskrit “nilah“, meaning “dark blue” (-Etymonline). Nilah is related to the root word for lilac.  [Many baby name sites say Niloufar and Nilipar mean “water lily”, but this flower was just what the names were in reference to. Reason #19,843 why I still trust Wikipedia more than almost any baby name website!]

When it comes to baby names, you heard it here first. At the time of publication, no other baby name source breaks Saffron down. If you choose to copy me, I’d better get credit!

It can be said with some level of reliable certainty that Saffron means “with gold petals”.