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Last week I covered the name Bede for Remembrance Day, partly with the idea that it had “been in my Request file for ages”. When I went to cross if off the list, I found it wasn’t there at all – it seems I imagined it. So today I’m going to make up for it by covering a Remembrance Day name that really has been in my Request file for ages (I double checked!).

It has long been tradition to associate November 11 with poppy flowers. During the First World War, red corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) were among the first plants to spring up on the battlefields of northern France and Belgium, blooming between the trenches and no man’s lands on the Western Front. In soldier’s folklore, the red of the poppies came from the blood of their fallen comrades soaking the ground, and were perhaps a poignant reminder that life went on regardless.

The sight of poppies on the battlefield at Ypres in 1915 inspired Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, of Canada, to write the poem In Flanders Fields. An American woman named Moina Michael, who worked for the YMCA, read McCrae’s poem just before the Armistice, and was so moved that she wrote a poem in response, and promised to wear a red poppy as a way of keeping faith.

At an international YMCA conference in 1918, Moina spoke about the poem and the poppies, and Anna Guérin, the French YMCA secretary, took the idea further by selling poppies to raise money for widows, orphans, and needy veterans and their families.

The poppy soon became widely accepted throughout the allied nations as the flower of remembrance to be worn on Armistice Day, and the Australian Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League (the forerunner to the RSL) first sold poppies for Armistice Day in 1921, with the money going to children’s charities and the League’s own welfare work. Today you can still buy a poppy pin from the RSL to help veterans of war.

At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, it is customary on Remembrance Day to place a poppy on the Roll of Honour, as a small personal tribute to the memory of a particular person. Another ritual is to lay a single poppy flower on the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier at the Memorial.

Even before World War I, poppies had a long history as symbols of sleep and death – sleep because poppy seeds have since ancient times been used as sedatives, and death because the colour of poppies reminds people of blood, or possibly because if over-prescribed, a poppy-induced sleep may become permanent. Today, poppies are still grown to obtain opium, morphine and codeine for medicinal use, with Australia being one of the major producers of poppy crops.

In Greek myths, poppies were given as offerings for the dead, with the suggestion that they were also a promise of resurrection in the life to come. The symbol of the mother goddess Demeter, she is depicted carrying both sheaves of wheat and poppies, and it has been theorised that the taking of opium was part of her worship in the sacred Mysteries.

These twin symbols of sleep and death were put to good effect in what must be one of the most famous images of poppies in literature and cinema – the field of scarlet poppies in The Wizard of Oz, the poison scent of which sends Dorothy into such a deep sleep that she is in danger of dying from it.

The English word poppy is ultimately derived from Latin, but the meaning is not known for sure; it may be from the word for “to feed”, because as anyone who has munched a poppy seed muffin or a bread roll topped with poppy seeds can tell you, poppies are yummy.

Poppy can be found as an English name as early as the 18th century, and the first examples are male, taken from the surname. This is derived from a German name Poppo or Boppo, used as a pet form of the name Bodebert, meaning “bright messenger”. However, by the 19th century, it was firmly established as a female name and associated with the flower, coming into common use along with other floral names.

Poppy only entered the Australian popularity charts in the 1980s, and in the 1990s was #602. It skyrocketed during the 2000s to reach the Top 100 by 2009, debuting at #69. Last year it was #79, and with such a brief history behind it, it is far too soon to make any predictions about its future.

Poppy is even more popular in the UK, where it has been Top 100 since the 1990s, and is currently in the Top 20. However, it has never been in the US Top 1000 at all. Last year 130 baby girls were named Poppy in the United States.

I think one of my first clues to how differently names are seen in other countries is that I kept reading in name forums from American contributors advising that Poppy might sound adorable on a little girl, but can you imagine a woman in her thirties named Poppy? Um yes, easily – Australian actress Poppy Montgomery must be in her mid-thirties by now. Poppy seems to suit her equally well as it does a toddler.

Another popular Poppy putdown is The name doesn’t sound serious enough, your daughter will never become a businesswoman, doctor or lawyer if you name her Poppy. Oh really? Then how did Poppy King manage to start her own cosmetics company? How did Doctor Poppy Sindhusake become senior lecturer in the school of medicine at the University of Western Sydney? And how did Poppy Matters start her practice in family law? By what occult means did they crash through this poppy-red ceiling to make the grade? Unless such a ceiling does not exist …

Some complain that the name, with its cheeky sound and link to a flaunting red colour, sounds too cute and flippant for a woman’s name – how will she ever be taken seriously, they fret? My own thought is that with its associations to such a solemn day, its death symbolism, and connection to drugs, it’s a jolly good thing that Poppy sounds so cheerful and light-hearted in order to offset what could otherwise seem rather gloomy.

Poppies are colourful, sturdy little flowers that bloom and blow easily in our gardens and the “pop” sound in their name makes us think of pop music, pop art and pop-up books – things that seem bright and lively and youthful. But beneath it is something dark and ancient and powerful. It stands for death, and life rising again, and the blood of heroes, and eternal flame, and rows of crosses in northern France, and keeping the faith. It is a memory in honour of those who died in foreign fields.

Do not underestimate Poppy. She is spunky and sprightly, but also strong and deep and enigmatic. She can survive almost anywhere, and, not content in being merely decorative, is useful too. She can feed the hungry, she can allay pain, she can understand sacred mysteries. Sometimes she can even be dangerous.

She can run her own business, or become a doctor, or lawyer, or politician, or anything else she wants to be. And she will sound fabulous when she is forty!

(Picture is of poppies growing in the Somme, northern France; photo from Keynsham People)

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