Semantic bleaching, in your own kitchen

The flowers in your vase are more closely related to the flour in your cupboard than you may realize.

Ismail Zitouny/Reuters
Workers load flour at a storage facility for flour in Tripoli.

Part of being a good English speller is pausing every once in a while, taking a little breath, and remembering that, for instance, the mantel of a fireplace has an “el” at the end, whereas the mantle that is a cloak is spelled instead like Mickey Mantle, the baseball player.

But what about, say, flower and flour? Mantel and mantle come up infrequently enough that they may never quite get to be second nature. Surely, though, everyone knows that you put a flower in a vase on the table (or mantel), and you keep flour in a container in the kitchen cabinet. The two are completely different words, aren’t they?

Hmm, not so fast. Flower, despite its decidedly Germanic-looking “w,” came into English around 1200, from the Old French flor, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Flower referred to the blossom of a flowering plant, or the plant itself (“planting flowers in the garden”), and like many words of that time, had a number of variant spellings, including flour. The Old French flor included this garden-variety sense of “flower,” but also ideas of “prime,” “heyday,” “elite,” “innocence,” and even “fine flour.”

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the English flour to the middle of the 13th century, when it referred specifically to the “finer portion of ground grain.”

The coarser parts of the ground grain were called meal. That word seems to have been part of English forever. As is common in English, the term for the humbler thing is a native English word; the high-end product is a French import.

(Meal in the sense of the food one eats at one sitting turns out to be a completely different word, by the way, rooted in a sense of “time for eating.”)

The idea behind flour, the dictionary explains, was of “the ‘finest part’ of meal, perhaps as the flower is the finest part of the plant or the fairest plant of the field.” On the same principle, “flour of milk” seems to have been an early 14th-century term for cream. 

The modern French term fleur de sel, for delicate crystals harvested from the surface of evaporation pools, is another expression of this idea. It means literally “flower of salt,” and it’s coming soon to a pricey boutique near you.

Around 1830, as people began to see the usefulness of fixed spellings, flour came to refer to ground grain and flower to a blossom.

You might say that what happened to flour was that it lost its “pinnacle” quality and became a kitchen commodity.

In his recent book, “The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu,” Stanford linguist Dan Jurafsky calls this process “semantic bleaching”: Part of the original meaning of a word gets “bleached out.”

The makers of one of the brands of flour inhabiting the storage containers on my kitchen shelves proudly advertise their product as “never bleached, never bromated.”

Ah, if only they knew. 

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