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Monday, May 4, 2020

Flower and flour

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

For Mother's Day, get your mum some flowers

Or if she really likes baking, you could get her a variety of flours (which currently seem harder to come by).

The two words were in fact once the same. 

The Latin word for the prettiest part of a plant, floris, became flour in Old French (subsequently fleur). Very quickly it acquired another meaning: “the choicest part of a plant”. Applied to wheat, this was the part used for baking. 

For centuries, “flour” had both meanings in English, then we changed the spelling to “flower”. In the 18th century someone had the bright idea to use one spelling for the wheat meal and the other for blooms.

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  1. So is "flour de sel" not the flower of the salt, but the "choicest part of the salt?" Very interesting . . .

  2. Hello,

    So this explains the similarity in pronunciation.

    As to the use of "flower" as the choicest part of whatever, this metaphor (is it ?) seems to have existed in the conscience of many peoples.

    For instance, the national poet of Romania speaks in a poem of "all the famed flower of the famous West" (rough translation), in connection to the military forces involved in the failed Christian Crusade of 1396. This poet (Mihai Eminescu, 1850-1889) has studied abroad in Vienna only, and apparently only briefly (for material reasons).

    Another Romanian - Lucian Blaga, a poet-philosopher of the 20th century - writes somewhere about the "corolla of wonders of the world", so I suppose either consciously or unconsciously, poets get fast to this usage of the word/idea of "flower".


  3. I will never feel embarassed accidentally pronouncing flour as flower again. (My friend explained to me that flour should, in pronunciation, fall somewhere between floor and flower: flar, flah-er, flow-er.)

    Interestingly, "bloom" in "blooms" also comes from a word for flower, as illustrated by things being "in bloom". cf. german blume and dutch bloem.

  4. Dear Sara,
    Your friend is wrong. Flower and flour are pronounced identically. Any attempt to make them sound different would be ridiculously difficult.

  5. Rochester, New York was originally the Flour City, because in the early 19th century its mills ground wheat from the fertile fields of the Genesee valley. Times changed, and now Rochester is known as the Flower City, for its many beautiful parks.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.