Poinsettias – the beautiful, leafy red plant, is a Christmas icon. It is unique in that it’s the leaves (technically, bracts) that are red – the “flowers” are the tiny yellow clusters rising off the bracts. But what about that difficult-to-pronounce name? Actually, it’s pronounced just like it is spelled: poyn-settee- uh. However, if you pronounce it this way your friends will probably give you a strange look, as if you just returned from lessons with Henry Higgins (for those of you who aren’t Broadway savvy, he trained Eliza Doolittle in the King’s English in My Fair Lady). They will wonder why you suddenly think you’re better than they (notice I didn’t say than them). Next, you’ll be saying “coo-pon” instead of “q-pon.” So, better to avoid the accusations of snobbery and pronounce it the common way, which is to add a t and remove an i: point-setta. It’s quicker (you save a whole syllable!) and you won’t lose any friends. Well, not the fun ones, anyway.
So who is to blame for this verbal brouhaha? The botanical name of the plant, actually a shrub, is euphorbia pulcherrima, which means “very beautiful” in Latin. No one would argue with that, but this doesn’t roll off the tongue any easier than “poinsettia.” The common name by which we know it today comes from the very first United States ambassador to Mexico, where the shrub is native. He found it in the Mexican countryside in 1828 and brought it back to South Carolina. His name? Joel Poinsett. I wonder how many people mispronounced his name? And did anyone notice that his first name means “Christmas” in French?