By Diane Talbot

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been spending a lot of time in my garden this year. I’ve also been spending a lot of time researching the etymology of flower names. This question is the one that started my explorations.

I often ask students to think about words that they find confusing or hard to spell to base our lessons on.  A few weeks ago, Flora* asked me why flower and flour sounded the same but had different spellings. Our investigation led to many exciting discoveries.

Homophones often have different spellings because it helps us to differentiate the meaning of the word when we are reading. I teach this as a feature of the English language and not as a flaw. A bit of searching on showed us that the words flower and flour are related and in fact come from the exact same word.

Both words appear to come from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root, *bhel meaning “to thrive, bloom, which is possibly a variant of PIE root *bhel meaning “to blow, swell.”

The word came into English around 1200 CE by way of the Latin word florem (nominative flos) which became the Old French word flor. The English word came into use circa 1200. Alternately spelled as flur, flor, floer, floyer, and flowre.

The word meaning “finer portion of ground grain” was also spelled as flower, until circa 1830, when flour became the accepted spelling in order to end confusion. Perhaps it referred to the “finest of fairest part of the plant”

The words flower and flour can both be used as a noun or as a verb.

The flowers (n.) in the field will flower (v.) all summer long.

She will flour (v.) the surface of the table with the flour (n.).

The word flower can also carry the meaning of “time of blossoming” and “innocence”or “virginity.”

The word flourish with the sense of “thrive” is from mid-14th century English and the verb meaning to brandish a weapon is from the late 14th century.

The related base <flor> which has the sense of “having to do with flowers” gives us words such as floral, florist, and florid.

I noted with amusement that cornflower and cornflour are both compound words.

The related words:

gave me difficulty; is the base <fol> or <foli>? I looked for evidence to support my hypothesis that the base is <fol> as in <fol + i + age>. I still felt unsure, so went to my word study group for opinions. My friend Mary Beth Stevens wrote this reply to my query:

“In the OED, I found an obsolete spelling of this base as <foil>. That made me think that the <i> was part of the base. But then I also found a number if words using this base, such as foliose, foliature, foliar, and folic. It is <folic> that made me pause! Like all the others it came from Latin “folium” with a denotation of “leaf.” We can question whether or not the <i> is a connecting vowel in <foliage> and the first three I mentioned, but in <folic> it becomes pretty clear that we have an <ic> suffix. That means that the base is <fol> by itself. According to Etymonline, the word <folic> (as in folic acid) was coined in 1941 because of its abundance in green leaves. It’s a very modern coining, so if anyone has evidence that this was borrowed incorrectly, I would be interested in hearing it. Until then, the evidence points to <fole + I + age>”

Another poster wondered about whether there was a single, silent, non-syllabic <e> on the base since otherwise, the l would double.

Then Erin Pizzo weighed in with this post:

“Taken from etymonline:

Foliage (n.)

mi-15c., “representation of leaves or branches” (as an ornamental design), from Middle French feullage from French feuille “leaf, foliage” from PIE root *bhel- (3) “to thrive, to bloom”) The form has altered 17 c. by the influence of Latin folium or its derivatives in English.

This is the evolution I was talking about. Not every word in English is a clear derivative of Latin and there are times when there are “alterations.” Also not looking at having a double <ii> in this sort as well? Folio + ic is perhaps an incorrect word sum because folio and folio are different declensions of the same stem. Looking at Etymonline, I would follow the ablative form, which is folium. Which may be why D. Harper of Etymonline gives the hyperlink for folio in the folic entry.”

I really enjoyed this exchange, and after sitting on this post, feeling like I didn’t have enough understanding to continue, I decided to leave this investigation for another day. I tend toward perfectionism and knew that if I waited to be sure of my thinking, this post would never be made.  I clearly need to recidivize Michel Rameau Spellinar Latin I for Orthographers, which is always a pleasure to do. As Michel often quotes:

“You can never step in the same river twice.” (Heraclitus)

In my own poking around for understanding, I came upon this in the pronunciation guide in Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

“Oddly enough, foliage traces back to Middle French foille (“leaf”), which is also the source of the English word foil (as in “aluminum foil”). When adopted by Middle English speakers, foil originally meant “leaf.” “

This gives me another list of related words:

Student (and teacher) questions lead to more and more questions. I hope you have enjoyed my dive down the rabbit hole of word investigation!

*student names and details have been changed.

Resources used:


Etymonline Dictionary

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

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