This word turned up in a review I read over the holiday break of Richard Mabey’s new book, The Cabaret of Plants. Checking my files, I found that I’d seen it in two earlier articles in British newspapers in the past decade. Both say, as Mabey does, that it was a word invented in the nineteenth century as a derogatory reference to the obsessive collection of rare orchids.
A search found other examples in British and American books and newspapers, most of which likewise suggested that it was well over a century old. The earliest was in the Daily Herald of Chicago in April 1999: “the Victorians coined a word, ‘orchidelirium,’ for their peculiar obsession.”
However, searches in databases of nineteenth-century books and newspapers in Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand failed to find a single example. Nor was there any usage on record of the full phrase orchid delirium, though orchid mania was used.
What struck me also was how uncommon a coinage of the period it would have been. Though blended words — what Lewis Carroll called portmanteau terms — were invented and used to some extent, they weren’t usually devised by joining the final letter of one word to the first letter of the second.
So if it wasn’t Victorian, where did it come from?
The cover of the July/August 1986 issue of Garden.
The clue came in the journal Biology Digest of 1986. A reference there led me to an article in the July-August 1986 issue of Garden magazine, published for the New York Botanical Garden. It was about the avid orchid collectors of the nineteenth century and was written by Peter Bernhardt, now Professor of Biology at St Louis University, Missouri.
His article was entitled Orchidelirium. However, he tells me he didn’t invent the word: it was most probably coined by the editor of the magazine, the late Ann Botshon.
It’s yet another example of people copying from one another. Somebody must have mistakenly thought Prof Bernhardt had encountered the word during his research. Others reproduced the assumption. As time passed, the link with the original article was lost and the factoid about when orchidelirium was invented took on the status of received truth.
[My thanks to Professor Bernhardt and to Esther Jackson of the New York Botanical Garden’s library for their assistance with this article. The image is reproduced by kind permission of The LuEsther T Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden.]