dandelion clock

Grover and I like to play a bit of (BrE) cod-Pictionary, using the cards from a UK edition of Cranium. She's 8 now, and I've been pretty impressed by her ability to communicate in pictures. So recently we were playing and she drew these two things (here kindly re-drawn for your benefit, as I misplaced the original).

Have you got(ten) it? I recogni{s/z}ed the first thing as a dandelion with its seeds blowing away and the second thing as a clock face. So I just kept saying "Dandelion time?", to Grover's increasing frustration, until the timer ran out. 

The answer was dandelion clock, leading me to ask: "What's that supposed to mean?" 

Turns out that's a British name for the head of a dandelion once it's gone to seed. It's also the name of a game played with such dandelions. To quote Wiktionary:
A children's amusement in which the number of puffs needed to blow the filamentous achenes from a dandelion is supposed to tell the time.
 (Bet you weren't planning to read the phrase filamentous achenes today.)

Grover and her dad and the makers of Cranium all knew the expression, but this was the first I'd met it (though I now see it's also the name of a wallpaper that I see often). But though I knew exactly the thing that dandelion clock refers to, I had no expression for it.

Since we're in Untranslatable October, this was exciting, but then I asked my US friends whether they had a word for dandelion clock and some did--either dandelion puff or dandelion puffball. As many American friends had no word for the thing. I'd probably say white dandelion head or dandelion that's gone to seed or something like that. There didn't seem to be a regional pattern to having a name for it or not--some who had a name grew up in the same town as me and still live nearby.

The words don't seem to be all that common--probably the kind of thing that stays on the playground. There are 4 BrE dandelion clock(s) on the Corpus of Global Web-Based English. The only dandelion puff was in the British section, but written by a North American in a comments section of a blog. (Why you can't always trust nationalities on GloWBE.) In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are 9 dandelion puff(s) and 2 dandelion puff(-)ball. There are also two dandelion clock(s) in COCA--one by a British author (AS Byatt) and one with someone using it as if it means the individual seeds, rather than the head.

So I got to learn three new words (for I do consider compounds to be words even if they've got a space within them) from two countries for one thing. Not bad for a day's pictionary.

Forgot to mention last time: I'm on the Talk the Talk podcast, chatting with the hosts about the language of the 2nd US presidential debate (after Dan Everett talking about Universal Grammar). The Quartz piece I did on Trump's the continues to get a lot of attention, including from Vox.


  1. I've just got to know another new word from looking up dandelion clock in the OED. The word is pappus which they define as

    Bot. A downy or feathery appendage on certain fruits, esp. on the achenes of many plants of the family Asteraceae ( Compositae), which assists their aerial dispersal (as in thistles, dandelions, etc.). Also: the reduced calyx of plants of the family Asteraceae ( Compositae) generally, whether downy, bristly, scaly, toothed, or membranous. Also as a mass noun: thistledown, down.

    Working backwards, I got her from

    8. A trivial name for the pappus of the dandelion or similar composite flower. [So called from the child's play of blowing away the feathered seeds to find ‘what o'clock it is’.]

    Which in turn I reached from

    dandelion-clock n. = clock n.¹ 8.

    with the delightful quote

    You could blow her away like a dandelion clock in the summer fields.

  2. Here from Oxford Dictionaries Online are some more quotations which are not from the playground:

    ‘Who too has not, as a child, picked a dandelion clock and blown away the seeds while making a wish?’
    ‘Its head looks like a dandelion clock, from which flows a long tail which broadens and splits about a degree or so along its length.’
    ‘His hair is grey and frothy, like a dandelion clock, but he carries his turbulent past and 66 years lightly.’
    ‘But it disappeared quickly, that top layer of irritation, blown away by the sea breezes as easily as the wind blows the fluff from a dandelion clock.’
    ‘From the grass and dandelion clock (a visual joke) in the background the reader grasps the rabbit as rather larger than normal bunny size: about the size of a toddler or small child, perhaps.’

  3. How fascinating - I love random finds like this. I've always known it as a dandelion clock but if I see a garden full of them, I'm more likely to say "Those dandelions have gone to seed". Love the quotations above.

  4. I certainly know what a dandelion clock is (BrE, 40s).

  5. Utterly new to me, if I'd seen that wallpaper with label I'd have pondered where the clocks were, not sure I would have caught on that the dandelions were also the clocks (30's west coast Cdn)

  6. BrE 60+: I also know them as dandelion clocks but perhaps would not have the phrase in my active vocabulary. Does Grover have a little rhyme to accompany the puffs as she blows away the seeds?
    Did anyone see a TV show featuring an amazing chandelier made from tiny LED lights and dandelion clocks? The price was almost as astonishing as the device.

    1. I don't think she had a rhyme, but just knew the word. It might just be in her passive vocabulary, since she loves blowing the things and I've never heard her call them 'dandelion clocks'.

  7. I used to have a rhyme for blowing the seeds away. I remember one from being a teen along the lines of "he loves me, he loves me not" (I may have been thinking of other personal pronouns although at the time I was doing it I'm not sure if I was out to myself even) but I have memories of a childhood one too, just no words I can put to it at the moment.

  8. I've always used the "he loves me, he loves me not" for pulling the petals off a flower rather than blowing a dandelion.

  9. Definitely a dandelion clock. Don't American children "tell the time" with them?

    Interestingly, if you look on the Wikipedia clock disambiguation page - I was looking for "stocking clocks" for you - they give dandelion clocks as one of the options.

    1. No, as Anonymous noted below, the North American game is to see if you can blow them all off in one breath (very hard to do!). What does "telling time" entail?

      The other dandelion game that was popular in the schoolyard when I (Canadian, late 20s) was a small child was to use a flowering dandelion to tell if someone liked butter. You'd hold the dandelion under their chin, and if the yellow color reflected back onto their chin, then it was said they liked butter. Why anyone would care to divine another person's preference for butter remains a mystery :P

    2. We used to do that with buttercups (ranunculus), only as buttercups didn't grow where we lived, we had to make do with kingcups (Caltha palustris), which were NOT THE SAME.

  10. My town (possibly just the neighborhood kids my mother played with and now us kids) call dandelion puffs foo-ty foos. Foo pronounced like the band Foo Fighters. Have no idea where it came from and haven't heard anyone else refer to it as that. Also, I always have a hard time explaining to people what I mean when I say that. I usually say something like "oh you know the old dandelions that you can blow on".

    For reference, I'm from a small town in West Virginia on the Ohio River.

  11. Mrs. Redboots - no, American children try to blow all the white things off in one breath.

  12. Goodness! How did you tell the time in the US before mechanical clocks? Oh, hang on, there wasn't a US then, was there?*

    Seriously, though, we here in SE England also called them "dandelion clocks" as kids, and used them to "tell the time".

    *There were dandelions, though, unless Longfellow really screwed up: see The Song of Hiawatha, 2, "Shawondasee, fat and lazy ..."

    1. Wikipedia suggests the mechanical clock was invented in China around AD 725. So yes, there was no US at the time. Neither was there a unified England, the island of Great Britain being divided among the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy and various Celtic kingdoms.

    2. There were a very few early mechanical clocks in China, but they were so complex and rare that they no longer worked by the time the Mongols showed up. Mechanical clocks as we know them date from around the early 14th century. On the other hand, there were water clocks and sundials before that, but those didn't have faces. Wikipedia says the common dandelion was imported into North America from Europe, but I guess dandelion clocks didn't make the trip. :)

    3. The phrase "dandelion clock" was certainly known in the US at one time. The citation given on the Wiktionary page linked by Lynne, from 1841, is from a US source.

    4. Looking at it today, I notice the Wiktionary entry has been nominated for deletion. Perhaps if any readers of this blog have authority to edit there, they should intervene?

      Btw, the reference in The Song of Hiawatha is actually to the Prairie Dandelion, nothocalais cuspidata, aka the False Dandelion or Wavyleaf Dandelion, which is indigenous to North America, unlike its close relative the Common Dandelion, which was introduced. The Prairie Dandelion has seedheads which are similar to, but not the same as dandelion clocks, the achenes having thicker tufts (pictures at the link).

      If you try and stop dandelions taking over your lawn by plucking the flowers before they seed (the roots are almost impossible to pull up), you can't leave them to rot where they fall, as they still go to seed unattached. If you dispose of them in compost, they will germinate and start growing, but as long as you exclude light they will eventually die.

    5. You don't need authority, Zouk. What you do is go to

      Requests for deletion

      and click on, in this case,

      7.44 Dandelion clock

      Provided that you have subscribed to Wiktionary or Wikipedia, you simply click [edit] and add your comment. If you haven't subscribed, it's an easy process — you don't need to profess any authority.

    6. @VP: The next words after 'dandelion clock' in the (1841) US source is "Pray what are they?", indicating that the phrase did not have currency in the US. The first OED citation is 1876 from a British magazine, and presents it as if people know what they are.
      It is the kind of phrase that is likely to have more spoken currency than written, but there isn't much indication here that it ever had much spoken currency in the US.

    7. Google books has one 19th century example that I can see. From an 1865 London-published collection of songs and stories, The Dandelion Clock

    8. Zouk, as well as adding a couple of comments at the Request for deletion page, I've now altered the entry a little. Let's see if anybody undoes my alteration. It really is all democratic — you should consider trying it.

    9. David

      Thanks for the info, but I'd be very diffident about editing on such a site, given the number of mistakes I make (as evidenced in my comments to this blog!)

      I'm not sure what amendment you made, but I see you've referenced this blogpost in arguing for non-deletion.

      Btw, following the links in Wiktionary to the Am and Br definitions in Oxford Dictionaries, I notice the US link redirects to the British definition.

      I'm not at all sure that "game" is really the word to describe the practice of "telling the time" by dandelion clocks, so I'm dubious about the second definition, but perhaps my sense of the word's meaning is too narrow?

    10. @Lynne - the 1841 US source is from a magazine aimed at children. So I agree it doesn't show that the phrase was necessary a matter of common knowledge, but it suggests that it would not have been unknown to adults.

  13. Idly googling "dandelion clock", I found the following story by the Victorian writer Mrs Ewing. http://www.telelib.com/authors/E/EwingJulianaHoratia/prose/marysmeadow/dandelionclocks.html
    ...which is actually set in the Netherlands but describes the 'use' of dandelion clocks (don't know whether the Dutch really do have that concept).

  14. Vp

    Thanks for that nugget ... and in fact I was wrong anyway: there is the famous anachronism in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (II; i; 191-3) where a clock strikes, mechanical clocks being unknown to the Romans, but clearly known in Shakespearean England, well before the foundation of the US.

  15. Alerted by Zouk's observation, I been arguing in Wiktionary that dandelion clock should not be deleted as a discrete entry.

    The definition had numerous faults, and as I powered on how to make improvements I realised that the professional lexicographers at OUP hadn't really cracked it to my satisfaction. In fact

    Grover did a better job than the dictionaries!

    She captured several truths (Well, I think they're true) that are ignored or obscured by the lexicographers, both amateur and professional.

    1. A dandelion clock comprises the stem as well as the head.
    —— clearly shown in Grover's picture as reproduced by Lynne

    2. It's only one stem.
    —— as Grover showed

    3. The association with time-telling is integral. The state of the head is not a separable concept.
    —— shown by Grover's combination of the two images

    The only possible improvement is probably a little beyond Grover's drawing skills viz a pair of lips blowing.

    1. In an attempt to emulate Grover, I've altered the Wiktionary entry. Let's see if it's accepted by the community.

      1. The white seed head of a dandelion after flowering.
      2. A children's amusement in which the number of puffs needed to blow the filamentous achenes from a dandelion is supposed to tell the time.

      1. The downy seed head of a dandelion after flowering, as used in the children's game described below.
      2. as before

      A single stem of a dandelion in its post-flowering state with the downy covering of its head intact. The term is used when the flower is used, or is thought of as suitable for use, in a children's pastime by which the number of puffs needed to blow the filamentous achenes from a dandelion is supposed to tell the time.

      No doubt it can be improved. If you're up for it, have a go yourself.

    2. filamentous achenes

      The way Wiktionary works, you only have to click on one or other of these obscure words to see a definition.

    3. I think you've pretty much nailed it, David (and no "spilling mistakes", either!). If I were going split hairs, I'd say that "amusement" is more apt than "pastime".

      I'm not sure that Grover is good authority for any assertions about the precise meaning, though! Her first pic should really have been of a dandelion in its more recognisable, flowering state probably, shouldn't it?

      Thinking again about the alternative names for the prairie dandelion, it's ironic, isn't it, that, in the official language of the USA, the indigenous species is labelled "false", while the interloper is "common". It would be interesting to know the names for the two varieties in various aboriginal languages.

  16. I just came across your blog while looking to read up on this phrase as I’ve come across it twice recently in books. One book was by an American author and one by a British author. My kids call them “wishy dandelions.” I think they’ll love the idea of counting puffs to tell time. Thanks for the great info! As an American fan of much British television and literature, I’ll be adding this blog to my newsreader.

  17. I was watching the children's programme "Where in the World" and discovered that, in Russia, what you do is blow all the seeds off and then try to catch them (like we in the UK would try to catch a falling leaf in the autumn); apparently the number of seeds you catch will tell you the number of letters you are (probably not) going to receive!


The book!

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)