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How Wandering Jew Got Its (Unpleasant-Sounding) Name

Call Me a Wandering Jew: Tradescantia zebrina’s more common name relates back to an old Christian legend that first cropped up in Europe in the 13th century.
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Call Me a Wandering Jew: Tradescantia zebrina’s more common name relates back to an old Christian legend that first cropped up in Europe in the 13th century.

By Philologos

Published March 10, 2013, issue of March 15, 2013.
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And according as our Lord [Jesus] said, this Cartaphilus is still awaiting his return. At the time of our Lord’s suffering he was 30 years old, and when he attains the age of a hundred years, he always returns to the same age as he was when our Lord suffered…. He is a man of holy conversation and religious, a man of few words and circumspect in his behavior, for he does not speak at all unless when questioned by the bishops and religious men; and then he tells of the events of old times and of the events which occurred at the suffering and resurrection of our Lord.”

In Roger of Wendover’s version, the oddly named Cartaphilus, also known as Joseph, does not wander, but simply lives forever while awaiting Jesus’ second coming. Nor, despite his affront to Jesus, is he depicted negatively, having repented of his deed and become a pious Christian.

Yet in many of the dozens of later versions of the story that occur in European folklore and literature, Joseph — also called Ahasuerus, Mattathias and Isaac Laquedem (a French garbling of the Hebrew for “Ancient Isaac”) — is portrayed, sometimes anti-Semitically, as a wretched outcast driven from place to place in eternal punishment for mocking Jesus on his way to the cross.

This image of him undoubtedly owed something to the repeated expulsion of the Jews from various European countries in the Middle Ages, and actual sightings of the poor fellow in person, his long white beard trailing to the ground as he strode doggedly onward with his walking stick, were reported over the centuries.

Just when “Wandering Jew” became a name for Tradescantia zebrina, or in what language this first happened (the plant is also known as juif errant in French, hebreo errante in Italian, judío errante in Spanish and ewiger Jude in German), is not very clear.

Since Tradescantia zebrina’s native grounds are in Mexico, this couldn’t have been before the first arrival of New World plants in Europe in the 16th century, but it may have been much later. The earliest documented botanical uses of “Wandering Jew” in English date to the 1880s but refer to two unrelated species: Linaria cymbalaria or ivy-leaved toadflax, and Saxifraga stolonifera or creeping rockfoil, both also rapidly spreading ground-huggers. Plant names, it would seem, have a way of wandering, too.

Should we be complaining to the Anti-Defamation League about “Wandering Jew” or campaigning to have it called by one of its other English names, such as Purple Queen or Purple Heart? I think not.

It’s a very pretty plant, especially when hanging in richly hued tresses from a tall pot, and in these days of fierce arguments about who is a Jew, I suggest we keep Tradescantia zebrina out of it.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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