March 10: On this day in 1792, Sir John Stuart, Earl of Bute, Scottish nobleman and Prime Minister of Great Britain, died in London at the age of 78. Though he is not well known in America, he should be. His career in the court of King George III was significant in the shaping of events that led up to the American Revolution. This includes his involvement in the French and Indian War, known as the Seven Years War in Great Britain. His ensuing military decisions for the American colonies were also significant, such as the extended presence of British troops, which eventually led to decisions like The Sugar Act, and the like. We all know what happened next.
The Earl of Bute is also remembered for his extreme interest in botany. On his retirement from politics, he spent the rest of his life studying botany and supporting the arts and botanical interests, including the establishment of the renowned Kew Gardens. He published a botanical reference in 1785 called Botanical Tables, containing the different families of British plants. His interest in botany was quite notable beyond Britain, drawing the interest of Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. Linnaeus named a genus of flowering plants after John Stuart, Stewartia, also known as Stuartia. Later on, the genus Butea was also named for him, first by William Roxburgh in 1795, and then by Carl Ludwig Willdenow in 1802. It is this fact that caught my attention for this post in the first place, especially for the plant Butea monosperma, The Flame of the Forest. This colorful tropical tree has traditional ethnobotanical uses as a dye in The Holi Festival, or Festival of Colors, and as an Ayurvedic medicinal for diabetes and intestinal ailments. Butea monosperma is currently being researched for its flavonoids and antimicrobial qualities. It is also a host plant for Lac insects, from which lacquer is traditionally made.
There is quite a bit of uncertainty regarding the etymology of the name. This is a great example of the need to be wary of what you read on the internet. Numerous hits show “Bute” as a derivative of the Gaelic word “Bhòid” for “beacon” or “fire”, and the Norse word “Bót”, which is quoted as meaning “fire”, and as “compensation”. Quite a difference, ach? This is how folk etymologies are created and perpetuated. After a few more hits, you could wind up with a completely unrelated result such as “Bót”, from the Hungarian for “shop” or “store”. Know your resources.
The web etymologies for “Bute” that tout the Norse meaning of “Bót” as “compensation”, “remedy”, or “help” are correct. It is along the lines of Old English “booty”, a compensation of sorts from war, which makes sense in the context of battles as from the Viking era in the Scottish Isles. However, language has a habit of adopting words simply based on sound. The Gaelic word “Bhòid” (“beacon” or “fire”) is also cited as being in place when the Norse speakers arrived; thus, the Norse possibly adapted this phoneme to their needs. I’ll wager a guess that they perceived this island as an acquisition during an exploration or invasion, depending on the perspective of the winners and losers. A few minutes with the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots produced the following results – take them as you will:
bha- = To shine. Contracted from *bha?-. [Note: This has many derivations pertaining to beacon, identify, and bring to light];
bhad- = Good. 1. Germanic *batizo in Old English betera, better… 3. Germanic noun *boto in Old English bot, remedy, aid [Note: Per the Norse Bót for "compensation" or "remedy"];
bheudh-. To be aware, to make aware. 1…a. Old English beodan, to proclaim: BID; … 2. Germanic *budon- in Old English boda, messenger, hence bodian, to announce: BODE. [Note: How far is it from "beacon" to "announce" and "proclaim"].
I will stop here with the uber-geeking. If you are interested in historical perspectives and linguistics, I recommend honest attempts at fact checking instead of simply copying the first hit found on the web. This source is an example of such an attempt for the etymology of “Bute”:
The origin of the Earls of Bute date back to the Viking era in Scotland, as told in The Orkneyingers Saga.
And an interesting one-man industry: Sea vegetable harvesting: Just Seaweed
The official page for the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.
– A Dash of Culture
Where Every Story Has Food and Every Food Has a Story.™