Perhaps we should start over and rename everything in the universe.
After a very long winter, I feel tired. Actually, I feel ready to see some snowdrops—the flowers, of course, not the mutant combination of snowflakes and raindrops that sometimes appears during an ice storm. It makes me wonder how and why snowdrops got their name. It is a nice name, a name that Karl May or some other European adventure novelist would give to a distant tribal princess in Siberia or the Sahara.
However, in Serbian the same plant is called visibaba, which literally means “hanging granny.” Why this difference? What makes one culture give a flower a pretty, poetic name, and another culture see it in an almost derogatory way? Had that name been given to the last flower to bloom before winter, it might be appropriate, but to give it to one of the harbingers of spring is at least strange. Does it mean that people in Serbia do not like springtime, that they prefer the cold of winter to the gentle warmth of spring? I remember that near the end of winter the streets of Belgrade would fill with peasant women selling visibabas. You would buy them to make spring come faster, to introduce some bright whiteness into the gloom of short, sunless winter days. In that respect, snowdrop is a much better name than hanging granny, although the right term would be drop of light, wouldn’t it?
Perhaps that is what we should do: get rid of all ugly, foul-sounding names and rename everything in the universe. Life would simply be more beautiful with all those nice, gentle names. When I get up in the morning, I would look through my window at the group of “lightdrops,” not at a group of shivering “hanging grannies.” Don’t get me wrong—I have nothing against old ladies and I have always thought that the fact that I did not have my grandparents was my true loss. (My mother’s parents were Bosnian peasants with enough hardships to shorten their lives, and my father’s parents were killed by Nazi soldiers in 1941 or 1942.) I hope that these facts prove that I am politically correct where my relationship with older people is concerned.
Older people? It is funny how one does not see oneself as one truly is. Being over sixty myself, I should defend the beauty of “hanging grannies,” and not speak against the name. But despite my age, physical condition, etc., deep down I am still a young man, almost a boy, the same young man I was forty years ago, in the summer of 1969, when I went to Edinburgh for a couple of weeks and fell madly in love. Not with any living being but with a painting by Sir Thomas Gainsborough. I forget the name of the woman in that painting, and I only remember that her dress was blue and that everything around her was also bluish and that the painting was (and probably still is) in the National Gallery of Scotland. Day after day I would go and spend hours standing in front of the painting until museum security grew suspicious and kindly asked me to leave. I bought a postcard reproduction of that painting and left my love forever. I hitchhiked to London and went to Carnaby Street to buy a shirt with a floral pattern. It was summer and it was hot, not the best time for someone who wanted to become, as the Kinks once sang, “a dedicated follower of fashion.” But back in Belgrade I never put the shirt on. It was too daring for a Communist city. Besides, I had already got in enough trouble with the police for having long hair. So the shirt was left hanging in my wardrobe until my sister began wearing it as her new blouse. What does that have to do with hanging grannies? I cannot remember what flowers were pictured on that shirt but I do not think that snowdrops were included. After all, it was a summer shirt, not one for springtime. (Even in London, England, there is something like summer.)
A friend from Belgrade informed me that the word might reflect an earlier usage of the old Slavic word baba, which originally meant any woman, including young ones. In Russian, he says, it still has that meaning. In that case, the name could mean “hanging young woman.” In contemporary Serbian, however, baba denotes only an “old woman,” often an unpleasant old woman. Referring to any young woman as “baba” in Serbia today would jeopardize one’s life. Even “babas” themselves do not like the word and prefer the diminutive form baka. No wonder, then, that these small, gentle flowers keep their heads down—they are not happy with their name. It’s high time we began to rename the world.