Whats the etymology of "common or garden"
May 24, 2006 3:27 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any idea what the phrase "common or garden" actually means? I mean I know it means "ordinary" but what is the garden bit about? or is it common as in Greenham Common, perhaps?
posted by criticalbill to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
common or garden, as it's not rare - you might find it in your garden (in the case of an insect or fungus or plant or stone). comes from "garden variety," I think - meaning not an arcane or rare item - probably originated with produce.
posted by luriete at 3:31 PM on May 24, 2006

It's common - you might find it growing in your garden.
posted by fire&wings at 3:37 PM on May 24, 2006

I've always assumed it was short for "common, or garden variety" but the comma and the word variety got lost. But that's just a total guess.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:43 PM on May 24, 2006

ditto cunninglinguist

common or garden lettuce=Lactuca sativa vs stinky lettuce, poisonous lettuce (hemlock), etc (a bunch of other varieties in the Lactuca genus)
common or garden thyme=thymus vulgaris vs thymus serpyllum=wild thyme
common or garden sage=Salvia officinalis vs Salvia lavandulifolia=Spanish sage
common or garden marygold=Calendula officinalis vs Calendula arvensis=field marygold

etc. etc.

I'm not a linguist, so I can't confirm the origin, but it has a pretty standard way in gardening/botany to refer to the one standard "common-or-garden" species of a given type of plant (the specific plant most people think of when the plant genus is given). I'd imagine that using that description for non-plants ("common-or-garden crime," "common or garden SUV") spread from there (given that the word "garden" is in the phrase, I'd think it originally applied to things found in a garden).
posted by neda at 4:14 PM on May 24, 2006

I would also guess that it is in reference to garden variety. Gardeners and vintners breed for certain characteristics in a plant, creating a new varietal. For instance, a chardonnay grape is different from the common grape you would find in your garden. Not so much to be a different species, but just a different variety. If you were buying the plant you would want to know what variety it is. Probably both terms were in use, some people calling it the common plant, and some calling it the garden plant, so sellers would end up referring to it as the common, or "garden" variety. Give it a few years and it's just common or garden.

on preview... what neda and cunning said.
posted by team lowkey at 4:16 PM on May 24, 2006

The Shorter Oxford lists it just as "ordinary", but it does list it under "common" the adjective, not "common" the noun, thereby squashing the interesting Greenham-Common-type-common theory.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:32 PM on May 24, 2006

How about a slightly different question: Where is this phrase used? I've never heard it. I'm a life-long Oregonian, and I've heard "garden variety" all my life, but I've never heard "common or garden". Is this a British thing? An East Coast (U.S.) thing? Something universal I've just never noticed?
posted by jdroth at 4:45 PM on May 24, 2006

I think the last. I'm a Yank and I've heard/read it all my life.

OED (s.v. garden):
passing into adj., in the slang phr. common or garden, a jocular substitute for ‘common’, ‘ordinary’.
[1657 W. COLES Adam in Eden xxix. 59 But the Common or Garden Nightshade is not dangerous.] 1892 Autobiog. Eng. Gamekeeper (J. Wilkins) 67 It was as large as a common—or garden—hen. 1896 Daily News 16 Oct. 3/4 Such common or garden proceedings not being to the taste of Noa. 1897 Westm. Gaz. 4 Aug. 8/2, I have—to make use of a common or garden expression—been ‘rushed’ in this matter.
posted by languagehat at 5:20 PM on May 24, 2006

Is this a British thing?

I don't know if it's an exclusively British expression, but it is an expression heard often enough in the UK. Since moving to US, I'm not sure I've ever heard it, but maybe I'm just not paying attention. Maybe there's regional variation? "Garden variety" seems to be the equivalent around here. Personally, I like "bog standard", but that tends to get blank looks in these parts.
posted by normy at 6:07 PM on May 24, 2006

This editor has only heard the phrase as "common or garden variety," as in, "I found a caterpillar in my salad which appeared to be the common or garden variety Alfonsius tarteum. A quick photo post on Ask Metafilter confirmed my suspicions."

Something like that.
posted by limeonaire at 6:16 PM on May 24, 2006

To my recollection I've never heard the phrase "common or garden", although I could have guessed what it meant and have heard "garden variety" or even "common garden variety" often.

I'm in the western US and work as a writer and editor from time to time. I watch enough British TV to know and occasionally use the phrase "bog standard," but "common or garden" is not a common phrase around here.
posted by mmoncur at 1:18 AM on May 25, 2006

I've always heard that it was from bird books and related to the sparrow, which is typically the most prevalent bird in British gardens and described as the "common or garden sparrow".
Seems a common (hah) reference.
posted by penguin pie at 5:58 AM on May 25, 2006

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