Whether it comes from weeds, trees, or grass, it’s small, stealthily floating around in the air and has the sole purpose of ruining any sort of outdoor activity you’ve planned – at least, that’s how it seems. On the other hand, it is the height of complexity for plant reproduction and partially to thank for the massive variety of plants (especially flowering plants) that we enjoy in our homes and gardens. Of course, we are talking about pollen, and, while we may know what it looks like (in some instances), what it does, and how it makes us feel, what about the word and how we’ve come to use it?
For something that seems to be prevalent regardless of location, it should come as no surprise that the word is of an unknown origin. While our word pollen does come from the Latin pollen, which means ‘mill dust or fine flour’, it is also probably related to the older Greek term poltos, meaning ‘porridge’. Moreover, there is probably also a link to the Sanskrit term for ‘ground seeds’, pálalam. As far as what pollen actually is – for those who missed that day in Biology class – it is a powdery substance containing male sperm cells that, when landing on a pistil of a flower or female cone (in the case of a coniferous tree), has been used in plant reproduction (both sexual and asexual) dating back to the late Devonian period, approximately 360 million years ago.
In usage, mimicking the Latin root and having more in common with polenta (which is a derivative) than plant reproduction, the first instance of the word in English comes from translation of Jean Froissart’s 14th century prose history chronicle of the Hundred Years’ War, Chronicles of England, France, and Spain, and the Adjoining Countries, translated by John Bourchier, 2nd Baron Berners, who recounts in 1523: “As well of pollen [Fr. Tant de poullailles], as of other vitailes.”
Strictly relating to plant reproduction, the first mention utilising our term would take another 2 centuries and appear in Patrick Blair’s 1723 work delving into the uses and characteristics of indigenous British plants, Pharmaco-botanologia, technically explains how: “Farina Foecundans the Male-dust..is shed from these Testae, which being then swelled to their full bigness do burst, and thereby this subtle Powder, Pollen or Dust, is dispersed over the Ovarium or Vasculum Seminale.”
Seeing as how we typically relate pollen to bees, it may be worth noting that the first use of the term associated with bees can be found in John Obadiah Westwood’s The Entomologist’s Text Book, where the esteemed author writes of the pollen paste made by bees to feed their larvae: “A succession of cells..in which they [sc. solitary bees and wasps] deposit a supply of food, either of pollen-paste or other insects, sufficient for the nourishment of the larva.”
Finally, considering that between 10% and 30% of the world population suffer from hay fever, or seasonal allergies, it may be worth noting that the first use of the term as a means of measuring the potential for atmospheric discomfort occurred in 1873, via Charles H. Blackley’s Experimental Researches on the Causes and Nature of Catarrhus Æstivus (“After being exposed for twenty-four hours, each slip was placed under the microscope, and any deposit it contained was carefully examined, and the number of pollen grains counted.”), while the use of the term for pollen fever, as a synonym for hay fever, would appear 14 years later in the general medical journal, The Lancet (The epithets of ‘hay fever’, ‘hay asthma’, ‘pollen fever’, ‘rose cold’, and ‘peach cold’.).