The Great Stupid Marches On: Plant Name Political Correctness And The Wandering Jew

Sometimes it all seems too much to bear. When I stumble upon something like this, I feel like smashing my head with a croquet mallet enough times to reduce my brain function to that of Margorie Taylor Greene or Cori Bush, and spending the rest of my days watching “Three’s Company” re-runs. Then I decide to write a post, and realize that once again, the most appropriate graphic is the “Blazing Saddles” “You know: morons” video clip. I could use that clip on ten posts a day now. More. Why do I bother writing this blog if insane ideological extremism is making the culture, society and public dumber by the second?

But I digress.

Let me tell you a story…

“Mommy?” a young boy asked. “What’s do you call that pretty plant in the hanging vase?”

“It’s called a Wandering Jew,” the mother replied. “You see how its vines spread and wander? The name refers to an ancient legend that has inspired stories and literature all over the world. It may have begun with the Bible: in John 18:20–22 there is a reference to a Judean officer who struck Jesus at his arraignment before Annas, the first High Priest of the newly formed Roman province of Judaea in AD 6. A Christian legend held that the officer was doomed to live until Jesus returned at the end of world, the Apocalypse—like that Bruce Willis movie we watched about the big comet about to hit the Earth, remember?—and until then the cursed man would have no home or friends as he wandered constantly. Roger of Wendover, the medieval English chronicler, wrote in his Flores historiarum of how an archbishop from Greater Armenia, visiting England in 1228, reported that there was an Armenian man formerly called Cartaphilus who had been Pontius Pilate’s doorkeeper. He had struck Jesus as he dragged his cross to Calvary, urging him to go faster. Jesus replied, “I go, and you will wait till I return!”

The mother continued, as her young son listened, fascinated:

“In 1602, a German pamphlet, “Kurze Beschreibung und Erzählung von einem Juden mit namen Ahasverus” told the story of how at Hamburg in 1542, Paulus von Eitzen, a Lutheran bishop, claimed to have met an ancient Jewish man who claimed to have taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion. In that version of the story, Jesus replied, “I stand and rest, but you will go on!” The pamphlet was translated into other languages all over Europe, and encounters with “the Wandering Jew” began to be reported. In 1868, the Wandering Jew was supposedly even seen in Salt Lake City!”

“The legend has inspired or been included in the works of many of the greatest and most important writers in Western literature, like Shelley, Goethe, Thomas Carlisle, Pushkin, Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gen. Lew Wallace (who wrote “Ben-Hur”), Mark Twain, Guy de Maupassant and more,” the woman told the boy. “I’ll read you some of their stories beginning tonight!”

“There’s a female version of the Wandering Jew too, a woman called Kundry or Herodias, who laughed at Jesus as he was being crucified. She turns up in Richard Wahner’s opera “Parsifal.” I think we have a recording of that: I’ll play a bit for you. Speaking of Wagner operas, the scary ghost story about the Flying Dutchman may have been based on the legend of the Wandering Jew: the ship has been called “the Wandering Jew of the ocean.”

“There is also speculation…” she began, but her son interrupted her.

“We have that plant in our classroom. Teacher says that only anti-Semites call it The Wandering Jew, and that the real name is “The Wandering Dude.”

The mother gasped in horror. “Your teacher is right, son! All of those writers were bad people. Forget everything I just said. Go watch your cartoons.”

Following the threads, tracks and footprints of our infinitely rich tales from history and literature opens up endless journeys to enlightenment, perspective and knowledge. Mindless knee-jerk political correctness erects roadblocks to this long-long process, using the fatuous justification that someone, somewhere, might be offended. The more that instinct to censor and sanitize infects the culture, the poorer and less functional it becomes.

Yes, the growing consensus in the U.S. is to call the popular houseplant Tradescantia zebrina the “wandering dude.”

I don’t want to talk about it any more.

22 thoughts on “The Great Stupid Marches On: Plant Name Political Correctness And The Wandering Jew

  1. These morons you accurately describe have succeeded in making Mother Gaia a little more…um…inclusive by renaming the incredibly offensive reference Gypsy Moth with the more Socially Conscious term Spongy Moth.

    When it first hit the news, I discussed this with a renowned Professor of Entomology Emeritus neighbor who was contacted for comment; he informed them, in no uncertain terms, that he thought it was the stupidest f*****g idea he’d ever heard.

    With moral busybodies, it never ends with just one…um…victory; a goal achieved no longer motivates.

    In the interests of staying ahead of the curve, and out of their crosshairs, I now find myself pondering the wisdom of planting Gypsy Hybrid Sweet Hybrid, Cherokee Red Lettuce, Cherokee Purple Hybrid Tomatoes, etc., etc., etc….

    • And don’t forget Scott’s Oriole, although that’s not a bird we’d see in the east. Apparently it was named for American general Winfield Scott, who is apparently only remembered by some for his participation in the “Trail of Tears.” The fact that he was the first to establish a real professional US Army (in fact the gray coats worn at West Point are a tribute to that training and the regiments that resulted from it), that he was the primary leader in the victory over Mexico, and that he came up with the “anaconda plan” to defeat the South in the Civil War doesn’t matter. One move against the Indians, and your name is permanently blotted and you must be erased._

      • I didn’t know about that to forget it! Scott also was a Presidential candidate and Lincoln’s first commander of the Union forces, as well as an important figure in the War of 1812.

      • Also banned is the term “Indian” for Native Americans… except, of course, for the folks at Haskell Indian Nations University in my old hometown of Lawrence, KS. One might suspect they’d know what terms are and are not problematic.

  2. I always thought the Wandering Jew spent the centuries learning magic, concealed his identity, and then bccame the mysterious magical figure known as The Phantom Streanger, who either pops up when other characters need supernatural guidance or when the Justice League is direly pressed (essentially if he appears, you know the league is in deep you-know what).

    Actually there are a few other names for the three other plants that bear this designation,most of them a LOT less silly than “wandering dude.” Apparently there are a lot more problematic names, too, so read this article https://www.hoytarboretum.org/racism-in-taxonomy-whats-in-a-name/
    and continue to keep an eye out. Oh, and don’t refer to those annoying moths as “gypsy moths,” that name was retired in 2020 following the death of George Floyd.

  3. Four years ago, I moved into my new house. I’d never tried potting flowers before, but there were pots along the edge of the property line, so I figured that I’d make a go of it. I had no idea what I was doing, so I asked my mother for help. Over the course of a weekend, we visited three greenhouses and put together a plan. I remember the conversation around the Wandering Jews…

    “These are kind of nice, they’d probably crawl over the rim, what’re they called?”
    “Wandering Jews, you can transplant them into something and bring them inside through the winter, they’ll last so long as they don’t get cold.”
    “Wandering Jews? Is that like the slang name for Brazil Nuts? What else are they called?”
    “No, Jeff (looks at crossly), that’s what they’re actually called.”
    “(whips out phone and Googles) “Huh…. Wonder how long that’s going to last.”

    I can’t bring myself to get overly concerned about this, really. I just… don’t understand. At least with the Washington Redskins, or the Edmonton Eskimos, we could look at the names and say: “Y’know what… Those terms aged poorly. Some people take offence to them, I disagree with a lot of the rhetoric, but at least I understand it.” This…. Are Jews offended by “Jew”? Is the legend somehow anti-Semitic? Or do we just have to remove all traces of Semitism from common parlance on the off chance that someone might squint really hard, tilt their head and find something objectionable?

  4. T zebrina, alone, is technically “Wandering Jew”.

    T pallida, is “Purple Heart”.

    “Wandering dude”? The alternate name in the industry for “Wandering Jew” in order to avoid offense with the hyper sensitive is to conflate the common name of “Purple Heart” with it, since they are close in relation *and* the likelihood (in my environment anyway) is that Wandering Jew is a houseplant, while Purple Heart is acclimatized for outdoor uses. So you often only ever see one or the other.

    This complaint arises with Confederate Jasmine which has been lately called “Star Jasmine”.

      • It’s extra confusing because who really even knows. They seem to be perpetually updating the Linnaean system for plants. Alot of the scientific names we learned 15 years ago no longer apply.

        Some genera have been combined as scientists concluded some species actually were different but were just seemingly distinct “breeds”. Some genera have split.

        Some culture groups or people of a geographic location call one plant “such and such” and a completely different species bears the same name in for a different group of people.

        Especially as you move across climate zones where one species doesn’t stand a chance of survival – well, it’s common name is free to be used if the people there feel like it.

        It becomes a special mess when plant supplies are ordered from a location that may have a more *commonly* used *common* name than what we *commonly* use here. Or if a client grew up somewhere else knowing a plant by a different name.

        Our heads swim thinking that the scientific name is supposed to be a unique term across all locales so we should have a common framework – except when those names change frequenlty.

        • The extra annoying situation is when a patented cultivar bears one name and the competitors who have essentially developed the exact same cultivar patent it under a different name.

  5. Seems like the obvious solution to avoid offending anyone but still preserving the cultural aspects of the name is to simply call the plant “Member Of An Ethnic And Religious Group Descended From The Hebrews Of Historical Israel and Judah Who Currently Has No Fixed Location And Is Engaged In Perpetual Aimless Travel.”

    Easy. Problem solved. Yeah, the tag on the pot is going to have to be the size of a tennis racket to fit all of that, but isn’t it worth the trouble to avoid antagonizing the purely-theoretical person who might somehow contrive to pretend to be offended by the original name?

  6. We have a bunch of wandering jew house and covered porch plants. They are prolific. And tough. They can even stand a little bit of frost. I whack them back in the spring by which time they’ve become absolutely Cousin It-like, and they come right back. Incredibly resilient plants. Thanks for the exegesis. Silly me, I’d always assumed the ghastly name referred to the Israelites who wandered in the Sinai for forty years.

    Query: Were there Jews who became Roman Legionnaires? Wouldn’t that soldier be a Wandering Roman?

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