Two of my favorite things are teaching literacy and gardening and I get super excited when I can combine the two. I began making flower etymology memes just for fun when I ran onto a fun meaning in the course of researching for one of my tutoring sessions in response to a student question. The memes were a hit with my friends and colleagues, and I was having so much fun making them, that I took requests and continued creating them.
I love that pansy means “thought, remembrance” and that lilaceous is a real word. Here is part two of the results of my research. Enjoy!
During a math lesson on angles with my verbally-gifted fifth-grade student, Brandan*, I drew a picture of an acute angle and an obtuse angle and labeled them. He immediately said, in a high voice, “Ooooh it is such a cute angle.” I told him that was exactly how I always remembered it, but that wasn’t really what it meant. Of course, he wanted to know what it really meant, and I already had my fingers on the keyboard to look it up on etymonline.com.
We found that acute is an adjective
and came from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root *ak, which means to “be sharp,
rise (out) to a point, pierce.” The meaning was originally used for illness and
fevers in the late 1400s. The meaning “ending in a sharp point” and “sharp or
penetrating intellect” both came about around the late 1500s. As a descriptive term
for intense or sharp pain it was used beginning in the early 1700s.
We talked about how the word could be
used literally– like it is used in geometry or more figuratively such as when
we talk of disease or pain.
And as it turned
out—the adjective cute is related!
In 1731 it is
attested as cute, meaning “clever, sharp, smart,” shortening of
acute; informal sense of “pretty” is by 1834, It is American English
colloquial and student slang.
I followed up with a more indepth study of the word. In John Ayto’s Word I
learned that it is related to the English word ague, which is an older
word for flu. The Latin verb, acuere, was probably formed from Latin
word for needle, acus. Other words that stem from the PIE root *ak are acid,
acrid, acetic, oxygen and edge.
With the information I had previously gathered, I used Wordsearcher.com to compile a list of possible related words.
looked up, and ruled out, the unrelated words, persecute, prosecute,
execute and their derivitives because they have a different base. I
noticed that cutey and cuteys was an unconventional spelling, so I looked up both
cutie and cutey and found that they are alternate spellings with the same
Next, I created a matrix in Mini Matrix Maker.
are the word sums possible with this matrix:
a + cute
cute/ + er à cuter
cute/ +ey à cutey
+ ly à cutely
cute/ + est à cutest
+ sy à cutesy
cute/ + ey
+ s à cuteys
a + cute
+ ly à acutely
+ ness à cuteness
a + cute
+ ness à acuteness
cute/ + ie à cutie
cute/ + ie + s à cuties
(The slash mark indicates that the letter
is replaced by the vowel suffix which follows.)
As Brandan and I were
talking, I looked up obtuse in Etymonline.com. I found that obtuse is from
the early fifteenth century and means “dull, blunted, not sharp” It comes from
the Latin obtusus, which had the same meaning as well as a more
figurative meaning “to beat against, make dull” The morphemes are ob- (“in front
of, against”) + tundere “to beat” from PIE root*(s)tud-e- “to beat strike,
thrust from PIE root *(s)teu- “to push, stick, knock, beat. The sense of “stupid,
not senstetive or perceptive is from the 1500s. In geometry, it became the name
of an angle greater than a right angle in the 1560s.
I tried to elicit its meaning from Brandan,
I asked “What is the opposite of sharp?” He had a puzzled look on his face and
answered with “fluffy?” I laughed at the image already in my head and tried
again, “I can have a sharp knife or a…” I waited for him to come up with a
response. And I waited a second longer. Then he cocked his head and slowly said
I laughed and drew a cloud-like blade
and handle on the whiteboard table in front of him. We both burst out laughing.
explained the meaning “dull, blunted, not sharp” to him and his eyes got big
with understanding and discovery. I then explained that the word could be used
to describe someone who is being stupid, or just clueless. He rubbed his hands
together in glee, planning already to use the insult on his little sister.
We went back to our math problems with
a game we call “splatball” (an impromptu game we made up, basically throwing
Crayola Globbles at a target drawn on the whiteboard.) Every few minutes,
Brandan said, “fluffy knife” and we burst out laughing again.
Tutoring bright funny kids makes my job the best!
I continued the research the word obtuse later and found related words and made a matrix. From John Ayto’s Word Origins, I found that the word is related to contusion and toil. I searched words in Wordsearcher.com using the search <tuse>
Again, I ruled out any words that were not related, and then I did an additional search for <tus> which yielded the related words: contused, contuses, contusing, contusion, and contusive.
ob + tuse à obtuse
ob + tuse + ly à obtusely
ob + tuse + ness à obtuseness
con + tuse/ +
ion à contusion
con + tuse/
+ ive à contusive
con + tuse/ + ed à contused
con + tuse/ + es à
con + tuse/ + ing à contusing
obtund (does not fit in matrix but is related.)
*names and details changed but be sure to look up the meaning of
the name “Brandan.”
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
etymonline.com 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:
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!
Diane is incredibly excited and honored to be part of this conference. She will be presenting on incorporating word study– etymology, morphology, phonology and orthography– into an Orton Gillingham approach. You can find registration information here.