September 18, 2020


That's a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe. The title is "Coxcomb," and because I like Georgia O'Keeffe, I feel as though I've prevailed in my debate with Meade about whether the name of the flower is spelled "coxcomb" or "cockscomb."

The subject came up in connection with a visual joke I presented in the previous post, which is about a brain wrapped in tinfoil that was found on a beach in Racine, Wisconsin. Along with the brain — which was not a human brain, so don't engage the empathy regions of your human brain — were money and flowers. The visual joke was that that the flowers that belong with a brain are the flowers that look like brains — coxcomb. Or cockscomb.

The truth is, I defer to Meade's spelling. He's the gardener. He's even saying "Celosia," which means nothing to me. In fact, I didn't even know the name "cockscomb/coxcomb." I said something like "What's that flower that looks like a brain?" I knew the flower. Had no idea at all of the name. When he said "cockscomb," I spelled it "coxcomb," and I got my images of the flower all labeled with that spelling. But if you google the other spelling, you get all the images, and now they're labeled "cockscomb."

I was still arguing for "coxcomb" because I'm an aesthete of the visual text, and I think "x" is a great-looking letter. Much lovelier than the "cks" combination. Good for playing Scrabble too — a high-scoring tile. On the other hand, if I say I prefer "cox," I can be accused of shying away from "cocks," that good old-fashioned genitalia word.

But the whole dispute is resolved, I believe, by Georgia O'Keeffe. She spelled it "coxcomb," so "cockscomb" it is.

But I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary. To focus on the flower Celosia, here are all the spellings in the chosen historical quotes:
1718 R. Bradley Gentleman & Gardeners Kal. 80 Pot some of your Amaranthus Tricolor and Cockscombs; give them a fresh Bed to draw them tall.
1785 T. Martyn in tr. J.-J. Rousseau Lett. Elements Bot. xvi. 218 The Crested commonly called Cock's comb, from the form in which the head of flowers grows.
1818 A. Eaton Man. Bot. (ed. 2) 132 [Amaranthus] albus (white coxcomb)... [Amaranthus] tricolor (three-coloured coxcomb).
1882 Garden 15 Apr. 262/1 Balsams..and the old-fashioned Cockscomb.
1914 F. E. Fritsch & E. J. Salisbury Introd. Study Plants xv. 202 A similar process leads to the production of the Coxcomb and the Cauliflower, both of which are monstrosities.
1948 Bot. Rev. 14 320 The common cockscomb, Celosia cristata, and its numerous plumose forms, is one of the world's most common garden flowers.
2017 Gettysburg (Pa.) Times 15 Sept. c1/1 This month what catches the eye immediately is the front corner planting of coxcomb or celosia.
From that I'd say, take you pick. And I'd argue that the "x" looks better. And I think Georgia O'Keeffe liked it better.

AND: Speaking of spelling, I originally misspelled "O'Keeffe" throughout this post. Corrected.


Dave Begley said...

Women win *all* the debates with their husbands, that is if the husbands are smart. Meade is smart.

Rocketeer said...

Clearly you prefer spellings based on a word's aesthetics, whereas I prefer a spelling bearing the closest relation to the historic origin of the word. Cockscomb it is.

daskol said...

Using three letters when one would do is flagrant extravagance.

Rocketeer said...

Women win *all* the debates with their husbands, that is if the husbands are smart. Meade is smart.

Your conclusion is correct, but the premise is wrong: smart men choose women who concede when their husbands are right, and don't simply have to "win" all the time.

But I'm divorced, so what do I know?

Nonapod said...

So you're saying that claims that the correct spelling this particular flower is "cockscomb" have been completely debunked?

daskol said...

Fragrantless, fasciated, a favorite flower of my mother. But in the animal world, it most closely resembles a coral colony rather than a cock's comb. And the color is closer to coral than fire. Strange name.

Ken B said...

I associate Georgia O'Keefe more with cuntscombs to be honest.

SeanF said...

Althouse: But the whole dispute is resolved, I believe, by Georgia O'Keefe. She spelled it "coxcomb," so "cockscomb" it is.

This statement seems to contradict the tone of the rest of the post...

Temujin said...

It's called cockscomb because it looks like a cock's comb. I've grown Celosia before, but it never looked as good as Georgia O'Keefe's painting.

Dave Begley was right. The debate was over before it began.

Leslie Graves said...

I think of "coxcomb" as referring to a man who is vain about what he wears. I'm pretty sure that if I still had the very bad regency romances I read decades ago, the author(ess) would use that word as a pejorative that way. I would spell the flower "cock's comb".

In the unlikely event that Georgia O'Keeffe wasted any time reading bad regency romances, she might have called that picture "coxcomb" as a way of saying, "This flower reminds me of that kind of man."

Fernandinande said...

Cock's comb = "The fleshy red crest of a rooster"

Christy said...

I clutch my pearls and disdainfully note that it is an annual, not worthy of consideration in either conversation or the garden.

ESM said...

Didn't Georgia also spell her last name as O'Keeffe?

Ice Nine said...

Well since cockscomb flower's petals have the same general shape as a rooster's comb, the source of the name is obvious. As should be the spelling.

Another clue as to the correct spelling: Almost all the dictionaries at Onelook Dictionary give a primary definition of "coxcomb" as, "a vain and conceited man; a dandy," and give a secondary definition of "coxcomb" as, "variant spelling of cockscomb." None of them mention the flower. OTOH, most of them give the rooster or the flower as primary definitions of "cockscomb."

Ann Althouse said...

The OED entry is titled "coxcomb" and the different entries contain notations about which spelling is more common for each meaning.

For the thing on the rooster's head, "cockscomb" is more common. Early spellings include "cokkes comb" and "cokes come."

For the jester's cap, I'm seeing both. Shakespeare wrote "coxcombe."

For "A vain, conceited, or pretentious man; a man of ostentatiously affected mannerisms or appearance; a fop," it's "In later use usually in form coxcomb.

For the hairstyle, there's 2012 New Yorker (Nexis) 22 Oct. 44 "A thin man in his twenties, with a coxcomb of spiky hair."

Used as an adjective, it tends to be "coxcomb":

1577 T. Kendall tr. Politianus et al. Flowers of Epigrammes f. 31 They count hym now a coxcombe foole, A noddie, nothyng wise.
1650 N. Ward Discolliminium 49 Let the Cocks-comb World wag which way it will, 'Twas e're a Bedlam thing, and will be still.
1681 T. Otway Souldiers Fortune iii. i. 27 One would imagine you were gone a Coxcomb-hunting by this time.
1763 Rowe's Ulysses (new ed.) Prol. i. 18 She was coxcomb proof.
1839 H. Hallam Introd. Lit. Europe III. vi. 592 The easy dupes of coxcomb manners from the court.
1907 Eye-witness (Birtle, Manitoba) 24 Dec. Irritated by the coxcomb airs of a witness.., the manager..resolved to ‘take him down’.
2014 Globe & Mail (Toronto) 21 Nov. r5 Strong character actors—Robert Duvall as the irascible dad,..Billy Bob Thornton as a coxcomb rival lawyer.

Joe Smith said...

A man goes to a psychiatrist. The shrink proceeds to show him a series of ink-blot prints, a Rorschach test.

'Alright,' says the doctor holding up the first print, 'What do you see?'

'That's a naked woman,' says the man.

The doctor holds up another print...'How about this one?'

'That's two people having sex,' says the man.

'Alright, last one' said the doctor.

'Oh my gosh, it's an orgy; there are naked people everywhere!'

The doctor says, 'Sir, you clearly have some serious issues with sex.'

The man says, 'Don't blame me, I'm not the one with all the dirty pictures!'

Ice Nine said...

>>Ann Althouse said...
The OED entry is titled "coxcomb" and the different entries contain notations about which spelling is more common for each meaning.<<

So it's OED or nothing, is that it?

(shrug) Whatever lights you up. I'll go with the preponderance of definitions in some thirty dictionaries at OneLook.

PM said...

Right about x.
cf. sacksaphone / secks / cksylophone?

tim in vermont said...

If you feel like bowdlerizing the name for the flower by spelling it “coxcomb” that’s fine and if someone else feels like bawdy-izing it by spelling it “cock’s comb” that’s fine too. I suppose it’s all about the effect you wish to create in the mind of the reader.

Amexpat said...

I'm not much of an art buff, but I do like Georgia O'Keeffe and made a special trip to spend the night at the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM. It was great walking around around the scenery that inspired her western landscapes.

tim in vermont said...

Chaucer wrote: "White gees..han a gret crest as a cokkes comb vpon hire hedes."

Shakespeare used the insult “An ass-head and a coxcomb” in Twelfth Night.

Gonna have to go with The Bard, just out of respect, but it’s not an easy choice, but nobody talks like Chaucer anymore, which is kind of a shame, because it’s amazing how modern he sounds in spite of the archaic language he wrote in.

Ralph L said...

The 17th century Tidewater plantation that Robert E. Lee Jr. inherited from his Custis grandfather was originally spelled Romancock, but it was bowdlerized to Romancoke. According to Wikipedia, it was derived from an Algonquian word for "circling of the water." Not very sexy.

JML said...

If it is an O’Keefe there’s a vulva hiding somewhere in it.