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”.


When Names You Love Mean Bad Things

Which names do you love, but can’t fight how you feel about a

“bad” meaning?

Judy asked:

What happens when you’re not keen on a name meaning? I’m not set on a girl’s name, but like Cecelia. From what I find, it means, “blind.” I’m just not diggin’ it. How does one reconcile this? New name? Bend the meaning a little (like, I could say I hoped she would be blind to differences or blind to obstacles that hold one back or blind to colors that keep people apart, etc). Thoughts?

For me, it is sometimes a deal-breaker. A name is like a wish you make for your child, and it’s one of the first gifts you give to them. Children do often embody their names, so if something is too negative I might strike it off my list. The same way you feel about Cecelia brings to mind the feelings I have for Claudia (“lame”). Geraldine on our page recently disliked the suggestion we gave of Maeve (“intoxicating”, by most counts), feeling it was too negative.

There are a few ways to reconcile this, in my mind.
1. Strike the name off your list.
2. Pair it with a name that gives the total meaning something beautiful or easier to appreciate. Remember, names are like poetry… and you are the poet.

Name Alchemy: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, lemon water, or anything you can imagine.

3. Find out more about the name. I recommend doing this anyway, for any name you are serious about choosing or keeping on your list. Names often have surprising histories, including meanings that seemed negative, only to find in context, they are beautiful. Of course, the reverse is often true, which is why I recommend researching even the most pleasant of names before definitively using it on your child.

So, let’s see these in action for a moment.

Let’s take Cecelia. Obviously, the first thing you could do is strike it off your list, if you felt so inclined. That’s suggestion Number 1 in action.

The next option is a little like your idea, Judy, of “bending” the meaning a little (which honestly may not be much of a stretch, anyway). It wouldn’t really be too difficult to give a positive spin to “blind”, as you suggested, and it can be even more descriptive when you factor in a middle-name meaning to go with it. Angel, a fan on our page, suggested adding a meaning that would make a phrase you love, such as “love is blind” or “justice is blind”. Those are positives, or can be in many ways. You could literally combine Love or Justice with Cecelia in a first and middle baby name combo, or you could do something figurative or symbolic. You could create a name that signifies miracles by combining Raphaelle (“healed by God”) with Cecelia, and suddenly you have the blind being healed by God. Cecelia Raphaelle just became your “name alchemy”.

St. Cecilia in Pre-Raphaelite art. Painting by John Waterhouse.

Of course, you can always find out more. Most sources indicate Cecelia (or more usually spelled Cecilia) is from the Latin root caecus, for blind. This is then sometimes romanticized to mean “the way for the blind”. However, could this be true? Wikipedia claims that Cecilia is an altered form more closely related to French and archaic French words céscelisme and céciaelism (respectively), which actually mean “one of the shining light” or “one of the world”. I’m having trouble confirming this (French scholars, I could use you right now!), but if this is true, it would make a lot of sense– Cecilia wouldn’t mean “blind”, it would mean “showing the way to the blind”. She would be like a shining light to help people see. Hypothetically. Just looking at the root words, it definitely seems to contain “cecil” (blind) and “ism” (the way of). Seems legit?

I couldn’t verify Wiki’s info this time, but if it isn’t accurate, it’s a great bluff.

Barring that, let me tell you that the Latin “caecus” doesn’t just mean “blind”, it means “hidden”. You could most certainly take “hidden” to be an alternate interpretation of Cecilia.  This is how you can research the names more to discover the meanings are more than what they appear.

Cecilia: “hidden”. Names can literally or figuratively have hidden meanings.

“Which Baby Name Sources Can You Trust?”


None?  >:)

No, if I can be serious for a moment… I haven’t found even 1 place that is good all the time for all variety of names. Read the comments section from this blog post to understand how I feel about that.

Believe it or not, your name is not Ancient Welsh for “elven lullaby“.

I think that what you need to look for is that they (the source) are treating names like words and like language, and not like “baby names”. As soon as something is treated like merely “baby names” they have lost seriousness on the topic. If they list a continent but not a language (“African”, “Native American”), don’t trust them. Overly romanticized or long meanings for what appear to be simple names? Doubt them. When you see multiple meanings for something, try to figure out on a root-word level if any of it makes sense. That would involve studying the language and determining if there is any possible way that somebody else’s meaning makes sense. A source has to be of reference-level quality, like a dictionary, to be taken seriously.

For example, words and even some proper names/place names can be examined at this etymology dictionary online.

Another source is, because in their learning center, you can enter a surname and it takes its info from the Oxford Dictionary of names. Formerly they had a first name and surname field; recently they’ve done away with the first name entry, which I feel was a huge loss and big mistake. I wrote to them about it and they acted like they didn’t know what I was talking about, but that’s customer service for you. If you feel it was a loss, too, drop them a line and maybe they’ll listen to a bunch of us rather than just one mad name freak.

Believe it or not, I consider Wikipedia to be a far better source than most name books and sites. I was just talking to a fan privately today; we were discussing the varied meanings given to the name Miriam. “Baby Center said…”  Oh man, don’t get me started on Baby Center. But when she said, “Wikipedia said…” I had to admit that they had a pretty firm grasp on several of the possibilities for interpreting Miriam. And, they didn’t definitively declare any of them right or wrong. As much of a joking point as Wikipedia is when it comes to doing “real research”, they are doing a much better job in the world of baby names than most who solely discuss baby names! Pretty sad, huh? Wiki is worth a look. Doesn’t mean they’re always right, but they often do okay.

[For the curious, this is a snippet from what I had to say on Miriam:

“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” -the song of Miriam, Exodus.
Painting is The Song of Miriam (Miriam right), by William Gale

My feeling is based on the combination of mar (מַר — means “a drop”) and yam (ים — means “sea”). The word מִרְיָם is the Hebrew way of writing Miriam. You can see those elements within it, but other interpretations seem to fit too… so I wouldn’t consider all others necessarily wrong.]

When it comes to trusting the accuracy of a source, whether you are trying to nail down a meaning or other nugget of info, I tend to not just take anyone’s word for it. I basically have to look at the name as a word within its language, which means cross-referencing a few times over, and making an educated guess or statement based on multiple sources of scholarly info. If you’re going to use a name and you are serious about wanting to know what it means, you’ll have to do the same for it.

And of course, you could always buy my book which comes out soon– this summer. 🙂