Today’s post is dedicated to my friend, Heather — perhaps you recognize her name from the comments section. It’s a pretty name, Heather, isn’t it? In the United States, it was the eighth most popular name for baby girls of the 1970s, and tenth most popular of the 1980s. Too bad Heather’s parents didn’t know that she would grow up to become a French professor.
You see, the word “heather” is virtually unpronounceable by Francophones. There’s something about the aspirated “h” followed by the “th” combination that ties French tongues into knots. As a result, Heather has spent years in France hearing her name butchered. She’s learned to answer to “Ez-air,” “Ez-rrrrr” and many other variations.
As you probably know, the name refers to an evergreen, flowering plant indigenous to Scotland’s peaty landscape. In France, they call the plant bruyère (photo above), a word that Heather herself taught me. At first, I was incredibly impressed she knew such an arcane term. “You’ll see why,” she told me.
Out to dinner that evening, I introduced Heather to a French pal. “Je m’appelle Heather,” she told him.
“Ez-air? EZ-rrr?” he repeated unhappily.
“It’s a flower, the same thing as bruyère in French,” she told him.
Guess what he called her for the rest of the night?
“I just can’t remember what your English name is,” he told her.
Later, Heather assured me this was far from the first time that had ever happened.
“What’s in a name? That which we call heather by any other name — eg bruyère — would smell as sweet.” I’m pretty sure that’s an exact quote from the Bard’s mouth.