The word flour, which we use for finely ground meals of grain, especially wheat, is really the same word as flower. Or, at least, they both started as the same word. Both flour and flower are spelling variations of one word used for, you guessed it, the flower.
English borrowed this word from the Anglo-French word flur, flour, flor in the 13th century, which originated from a Latin root which also produces flora and flourish. There were several early spellings, including flure, floure, flowre, flower, etc. The word came to be used metaphorically in the 13th century and onwards to mean the ‘flower’ or the finer portion of mealed flour.
Flower had come to used metaphorically to describe the ‘best part of something’ and this usage extended into ground grain to mean the finest quality of ground wheat. Originally, any of the spellings would have sufficed for either use of the word, to describe a bloom or blossom, or a high quality finely ground wheat meal.
It wasn’t until much later that the two spellings split off. This split did not happen overnight.
According to The Oxford Guide to Etymology, as early as 1738, Cruden’s Bible concordance used the modern versions of the words, distinguishing between flower and flour. But seventeen years later, in 1755, Johnson’s Dictionary used flower for both meanings, and listed them under the same entry.
However, the separate flower and flour versions of the words were gaining favor and, by the 19th century, most print sources use the two separate words. Now, very few people are aware that they were ever related, and you were probably taught that one has nothing to do with the other. Now you know better! Flower and flour not only sound alike, they are alike.
Flour Versus Meal
The word flour more or less usurped the word meal in English, which we only use in compound words like cornmeal, or oatmeal.
Meal, in the sense of ground grain, comes from the Old English melu or meolo, which have German origins, traced to a prehistoric Indo-European word meaning grind that also produced the Latin derived word mill.
Variations of the word meal, such as mehl, mel, mjöl are still used for “flour” in German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and other languages. Meal has no etymological connection with “meal” meaning food eaten on regular occasions.
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