Like all clouds, the cherry blossoms bring their own sort of storm. Their petals swirl on the sidewalks, they mingle in your hair, they fall among the tulips that spring like rested children from their beds. Smacked with the sweat and smells of premature summer, Washingtonians don’t notice, behind the blossoms and buds, the hardy, faithful lavender, the modest source of a half-forgotten nursery rhyme:
Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green,
When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen.
Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so?
‘Twas my own heart, dilly dilly, that told me so.
Maybe you know this song. Burl Ives popularized it in 1948, and Sammy Turner and Gene Vincent covered it, too. The Jackson Five gave it a Motown spin, Lloyd Robinson made it Jamaican, and in 1985 Marillion reimagined it as the love song a drunk, regretful poet dearly wished he had written. Many lovely amateur versions hark back to Ives, but “Lavender Blue” predates the modern hit parade. On hot spring days, the song might almost be medieval.
The oldest recorded version of “Lavender Blue” is “Diddle Diddle, or, The Kind Country Lovers,” a ballad that dates to the 17th century:
Lavender’s green, diddle diddle, lavender’s blue
You must love me, diddle diddle, ’cause I love you.
I heard one say, diddle diddle, since I came hither,
That you and I, diddle diddle, must wed together.
You can see for yourself that it does goes on, with eight additional verses that focus far more on sly young rustics all a-diddle than on the whole lavender business. Still, it’s charming, and maybe revealing, that later versions so fondly return to the line about lavender, even when singers smile and pass it off as a bit of nonsense, since it may point to the deeper roots of the song itself.
According to the OED, “lavender” as a word to describe a color—specifically, the color of the plant—goes back only to 1882, and “lavender” as a verb meaning “to perfume with lavender” pops up in 1820. In English, the plant name Lavandula dates to 1265, plucked from medieval Latin as a corrupt form of a diminutive rooted in a Latin term connoting things to be washed, and hinting (in ways the OED declares “obscure”) at associations with perfumed baths and freshly washed linen. Thus do the modern English words “launder” and “laundry” tumble forth.
More definitively, the 14th century gave us lauendere, the Middle English term for a washerwoman, as in this nugget from the Harley Lyrics:
prude wes my plowe fere
lecherie my lauendere
And here’s Chaucer, from the F-text of the prologue to The Legend of Good Women:
Envie ys lavendere of the court alway,
For she ne parteth, neither nyght ne day
So did “Lavender Blue” grow out of a medieval ode to a washerwoman amused by the prospect of a royal life with her rustic “king”? Is it a later tribute, knowing or half-knowing, to the roots of the word itself? No academic paper is forthcoming; these questions are simply the fancy of a sunstruck medievalist who suspects that an inscrutable mention of lavender in a ballad about “kind country lovers” wasn’t always meaningless.
One further usage from around 1300 gives us a dash or two more: a reference to the seizure of the chattels of fugitive “Johannis le lavendere” to remind us that there were washermen as well. Appropriately, modern versions of “Lavender Blue” give the “queen” a chance to pipe up on equal terms:
I love to dance, dilly dilly, I love to sing;
When I am queen, dilly dilly, You’ll be my king.
Who told me so, dilly dilly, Who told me so?
I told myself, dilly dilly, I told me so.
So are the young man and woman laboring side by side, crooning on the banks of some gnat-clouded river or stealing kisses over the washbasin, loving their lives even though there’s nary a courtier or castle in sight? It’s spring, for Heaven’s sake; go outside, and imagine whatever you wish. And if and when you stop to smell the flowers, spare a sniff for the lavender, and don’t be shy; dig deep for a story, whether you’re inspired by scents—or by quasi-medieval nonsense.