Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 28, 2016

Etymology: From Panettone to the First Snowflake

Another etymology discussion broke out at Rancho Redux, this one during a holiday season breakfast of panettone, the traditional Italian holiday bread.


The package touted that the product featured fiocchi di mandorle e zucchero. That indicated “somethings” of almond and sugar.


We looked up fiocchi: flakes. “Flakes of almond and sugar.” (singular, fiocco)

The Counselor and I wondered if the English word “flake” shared a common linguistic relationship with fiocco. It didn’t seem to be impossible that the two words were related, but etymology isn’t always either logical or obvious.

We speculated for a while, which is always entertaining, but it was off to the dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary, usually helpful regarding derivations, said only that flake had been present in Middle English, but had no further information other than to refer us to its Indo-European root, plāk. That would be interesting, but wasn’t likely to be helpful.

The Oxford English Dictionary was packed full of information: information about how uncertain the origin of the English word is.

There are, of course, multiple types of “flake,” which can mean a flake of snow or a thin piece split off from a larger body, among others. It’s likely, OED said, that multiple source words from several languages converged to become one word in English signifying several senses of “flake.” It listed possible sources in Old Norse, Old High German, Dutch, Danish and, I kid you not, Lithuanian.

Italian fiocco derives from Latin floccus, cloud, as does the French word for flake: floconFloccus also meant “tuft of wool,” which became Old English floc (both the wool AND the group of sheep), Middle English flok and our modern “flock,” but not “flake.”

The net judgment of the OED entry is that a bunch of similar things — flakes of ash, flakes of skin, snowflakes, perhaps originally described by discrete terms — have been lumped together in one convenient modern English word, flake.

There was one timely bit of information amidst this research. It is the season (for readers in the southern hemisphere only symbolic) for snowflakes. We don’t get snowflakes here in Los Angeles, although I can see snow on the San Gabriels through the window, about 50 miles away. Beautiful.

The earliest use of “flake” in Middle English was this phrase, in 1384:

As flakes fallen in great snowes.

The author who wrote that first recorded use of flake in this language was Geoffrey Chaucer in one of his earliest works, The House of Fame.

We’re not certain where he got that word. Chaucer did know French and Italian, so he might have borrowed it. Like Shakespeare later on, he was a powerful word-coiner and adapter of language, and that first “flake” may be a tiny glimpse of his mighty imagination at work.

Enjoy the snow, everyone. I welcome comments or corrections, especially from my Italian readers. Grazie.

© Brad Nixon 2016. Panettone photo © Marcy Vincent 2016, used by kind permission.

Sources: Oxford Italian Dictionary, Oxford University Press 1999; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., Houghton Mifflin, 2000; The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1971; Cassell’s French-English English-French Dictionary, Macmillan, 6th printing, 1981; A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Clark-Hall, Wilder Publications, 2011; Latin via Wiktionary:





  1. Well, isn’t that artistic? A cylinder of panettone atop a round bread board, with white flakes atop the bread and on the counter!


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