Word Connections: Flowers

R. Philip Bouchard
Apr 4, 2017 · 8 min read

Many of our simplest, most common words have been part of the English language for millennia, dating back to Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and earlier. But the word “flower” did not become part of the English language until after the Norman invasion of 1066, when French speakers conquered England and ruled the country for several centuries. The word “flower” comes from the Old French flor or flour, which in turns comes from the Latin “flos” or “flor-”. In Middle English the word was spelled “flour”, and the word makes an appearance in the fourth line of the prologue to “The Canterbury Tales”, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1300s. In this passage Chaucer talks about how fine the month of April is, and that one of its attractions is the appearance of spring flowers — which he spells as “flour”.

People then, as today, appreciated beautiful flowers. In many cases, a showy flower is the most beautiful and interesting part of the plant on which it grows. It was natural therefore to consider the flower as the best part of a plant. Therefore the word “flour” came to have a second meaning in both Old French and Middle English as “the best part” of anything. For example, you could have said “She is the flour (flower) of her family.” But the word “flour” also came to be associated with finely ground grain, a leap that today can seem a bit odd. When wheat or some other grain was ground in a mill, the results were typically uneven. The coarser parts were collected and called “meal” (as in corn meal or oatmeal). The most finely ground parts were collected and called “flour”, because this was considered to be the best part.

Therefore it is no coincidence that the English words “flour” and “flower” have the same pronunciation. At one time the two words were a single word with related meanings. By the late 1600s the word “flower” had developed its current spelling, while the word “flour” kept its old spelling — but even today we pronounce both words in exactly the same way. That said, the pronunciation of “flour” 700 years ago was probably different from today, because of the “Great Vowel Shift” that occurred between 1350 and 1700. By the time the shift was completed, the pronunciation of the vowel sounds in most English words had changed.

In modern French, the word for “flower” is now fleur. A common symbol of French culture is a stylized flower design called a fleur-de-lis. The French word lis means “lily”, so the phrase fleur-de-lis means “lily flower”. But in reality, the stylized design appears to be based on a species of iris. This is because the word lily was once a fairly generic term, referring to various kinds of flowers.

In Spanish and Portuguese, the word for flower is flor, essentially unchanged from the ancient Latin. When the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first reached land in what is now Florida, it was in the springtime a few days before Easter. He claimed the land for Spain and named it after the Easter holiday — Pascua de Florida. The florida part of the name literally means “flowery”, and was used to distinguish the springtime holiday from other holidays. (At that time, the Spanish word pascua was used to refer to any major religious holiday, especially Christmas and Easter. But in modern Spanish the word pascua is used only for Easter.) Today the state of Florida still bears its flowery Spanish name. The Latin root “flor-” has other connections to English as well. If we want to buy a bouquet of flowers for a special occasion, we are likely to visit a “florist”. If we see a fabric that is decorated with images of flowers, we call it a “floral” print. And we refer to the plants that grow in a particular area as the “flora” of that region.

The German word for flower is Blume, which is pronounced nearly the same as the English word “bloom”. And of course, the word “bloom” is a synonym for “flower”. While the word can be used as a noun, we more frequently use the word as a verb. For example, we might say “I am so happy that the daffodils are starting to bloom.” The connection between “bloom” and Blume is obvious and real, but it does not mean that the English word came directly from German. In fact, our word “bloom” came from Old Norse, which is a Scandinavian language. The Scandinavian languages are related to the Germanic languages, all descended from a common ancestral language long ago, so it is not unusual to find similar words across these languages.

So how did this Old Norse word become a part of the English language? For several centuries prior to the Norman invasion in 1066, the island of Great Britain (now England and Scotland) was home to three principal groups of languages. In the west and north of the island, the people spoke Celtic languages, ancestors of modern Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. In the center and south of the island, the people spoke various dialects of Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon. And along the east coast, the people spoke various dialects of Old Norse. These eastern people were Viking raiders from Scandinavia, or the descendants of Vikings who had arrived earlier. They built up a powerful kingdom in the east, which at times threatened the English-speaking kingdoms with extermination. The English referred to these easterners as “Danes”, a connection to the modern country of Denmark. The city of York, in eastern English, was a stronghold for the Danes, and the name York is derived from the Old Norse name of the city — Jórvík. During this period a large number of Old Norse words entered Old English, and one of those words was blom, which has evolved to become our modern word “bloom”. The modern Icelandic language is very similar to Old Norse, having changed little since the days when Iceland was settled by Vikings. Even today the Icelandic word for flower is blom, identical to the Old Norse word.

But this raises an interesting question. If the word “flower” entered English after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and the word “bloom” entered English a couple of centuries before that, then what word did the Anglo-Saxons use for “flower” in even older times? The Old English word for “flower” was blōstma, which has evolved into our modern word “blossom” — which is still another synonym for “flower”. So we can say “flower”, “bloom”, or “blossom”, and it all means the same thing. The words “bloom” and “blossom” look rather similar, and indeed the two words are related. The Old English blōstma, the Old Norse blom, and the modern German Blume are all descended from a word in the ancient proto-Germanic language that gave rise to all of the later Germanic and Scandinavian languages.

The names of specific flowers also have some interesting connections across languages. It is not unusual for a girl to be named for a flower — for example, Rose, Lily, Iris, Violet, or Daisy. In some cases the corresponding word in a foreign language is also a familiar girl’s name. In most of these cases the foreign word is not very different from the English word. For example, the flower called “rose” in English is called rosa in Spanish — and Rose and Rosa are both girl’s names. But in a few cases, the foreign word is quite different from the English word, and yet both are girl’s names. For example, the word “daisy” in Spanish is margarita — and Daisy and Margarita are both women’s names.

Many of our traditional flower names are short and unique — such as rose, daisy, and tulip — while others are longer, obviously created by combining shorter words together — such as sunflower, snapdragon, and marigold. So let’s take a look at the origins of several different flower names.

Our word “rose” is essentially unchanged from the Old English word rōse, of Germanic origin, which in turn traces back to the Latin word rosa. This word has a long history in Europe, and most of the Western European languages use essentially the same word to mean rose. Likewise the words “lily” and “iris” have very long histories tracing back to Latin (and Greek before that), and similar words are used all over Western Europe.

On the other hand, the word “daisy” is unique to English. It comes from the Old English phrase dæges ēage, which literally means “day’s eye”, because the flower opens in the morning and closes at night. Other European languages use very different words for this flower. The languages that are direct descendants of Latin all use words derived from the Latin word margarīta, which meant “pearl” as well as daisy. The modern word for daisy in Spanish is still margarita, while the word in French is marguerite. In the languages of Germanic origin, a range of different words are used. In German, the word for daisy is Gänseblümchen, which literally means “geese flower”. In Dutch the word for daisy is madeliefje, which is literally either “gentle sweetheart” or “maggot sweetheart”. (You are free to surmise as to which phrase best reflects the original intent.) The Swedish word for daisy is tusensköna, which literally means “thousand beauties”, while the similar Norwegian word is tusenfryd, which literally means “thousand delights”.

Of course, not all the flowers that we know today were known in Europe a thousand years ago. Some arrived in Europe much later, and therefore no words existed for these flowers in Old English or Ancient Latin. Such is the case with “tulip”. About 500 years ago, tulips were introduced to Europe from Turkey, but the flowers originally come from Persia. In Persia the flower was called dulband, which literally meant “turban”, due to the shape of the flower. By the time the flower reached France, the word had morphed into tulipe — quite a change. All the Western European languages now use a similar word for this flower.

Also around 500 years ago, sunflowers reached Europe, brought over from North America. This time no native word came along, and so it was necessary to invent something new. The most striking feature of the sunflower is that the flower faces the sun all day, looking east in the morning, and then turning throughout the day until the flower faces west at sunset. Therefore all of the Western European languages adopted compound words for this flower that included the word for “sun”. In English we coined the word “sunflower”. The German word is Sonnenblume and the Dutch word is zonnebloem, both of which literally mean “sun flower”. In Swedish the word is solros, which means “sun rose”. But the Latin languages took a slightly different approach. The Italian word girasole, Spanish girasol, and French tournesol all mean “turning towards the sun” — a highly descriptive name!

The word “snapdragon” is another fascinating case. It certainly looks like a compound word — “snap” plus “dragon”. But what does it mean? Well, the word “snap” comes from a Dutch word meaning to bite. (This is still one meaning of the word, as in a “snapping turtle”.) Therefore a “snapdragon” is literally a dragon’s bite, or a dragon’s jaw. If you look carefully at the flower, it does resemble a face with a large jaw. If you watch a bee pollinating this flower, you’ll see the bee force open the jaw and then disappear inside, as the jaw snaps shut behind it. Later, after the bee has finished gathering the pollen, it will force the jaw open again and exit. In many Western European languages, just as in English, the word for snapdragon reflects this characteristic snapping jaw. But most languages call it a “lion’s jaw” or a “lion’s mouth” — not a dragon’s. Examples include Löwenmäulchen (German), leeuwenbek (Dutch), løvemund (Danish), lejongap (Swedish), and bocca di leone (Italian).

With that snappy ending, we now conclude this episode of Word Connections. But rest assured that additional episodes will appear in the future!

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The Philipendium

Insightful stories about science, nature, language, and education. Browse a collection of more than 50 fascinating articles.

R. Philip Bouchard

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Writer, educator, and avid student of nature. See more at www.philipbouchard.com

The Philipendium

Insightful stories about science, nature, language, and education. Browse a collection of more than 50 fascinating articles.

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