Dictionary Dive Hits a Brick Wall

By Rob Kyff

February 28, 2018 3 min read

An occupational hazard of writing this column is distraction. No, I don't mean being interrupted by robocalls or the cat who suddenly vaults onto my desk.

I mean getting sidetracked, such as looking up the word "effulgent" in the dictionary and noticing a photograph, next to the word "efflorescence," of a brick wall covered with white patches.

I've been walking past these chalky-looking brick walls for my entire life; in fact, I've always found them rather quaint and charming. But I never knew that this phenomenon was called "efflorescence."

Apparently the salt lurking in bricks sometimes migrates to the surface and "flowers" to form a white coating. Indeed, "efflorescence" derives from the Latin verb "florere" (to blossom), the same root that gives us "flower," "floral" and "flour."

In botany, "efflorescence" means "the process of flowering," and, by extension, any blossoming, e.g., "an efflorescence of great art."

Knowing the derivation of "efflorescence" gives me a reason to appreciate these chalky coatings on bricks even more. Now I'll think of them as white bouquets.

And while we're on the subject, what's the deal with "flower" and "flour"? These words sound exactly alike but bear distinctly different meanings.

As it turns out, "flour" and "flower" both derive from the Old French word "flor" (blossom). That's because the finer portion of milled grain was thought to be its best part, just as a flower is considered the finest part of a plant.

When the Old French "flor" entered English as "flower" during the 1200s, this term referred to both the bloom and the grain. Samuel Johnson's dictionary of 1755, for instance, included this definition of "flower": "the edible part of corn; the meal." (In Britain, "corn" means any kind of cereal grain, including wheat.)

It wasn't until the early 1800s that the spelling "flour" for the ground grain developed, presumably to avoid confusion between the two meanings. After all, you can't have people stirring flowers into the cake mix.

Now where were we? ... Oh, yes, "effulgent."

Derived from the Latin verb "fulgere" ("to shine"), "effulgent" means "shining brilliantly, resplendent," e.g., an "effulgent diamond," and, by extension, "full of vitality, sparkling," e.g., "effulgent welcome" or "effulgent prose."

Arrghh. The cat just jumped onto my desk — just as my riff on "effulgent" was starting to effloresce!

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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