Balashon, a Hebrew-oriented blog with a focus on etymology (see here), has a new post discussing the Hebrew words solet סולת and kemach קמח, both meaning ‘flour.’ Since MMcM is on extended hiatus, it’s good to have someone else doing that kind of detailed historical investigation; here’s a taste:

So actually both those that say that solet was coarse and those that say that it was powdery were correct. In the beginning of the process, solet was coarser than the kemach that would result from a standard milling. But by the end of the process, solet was powdery, whereas the kemach would have been comparatively coarse. Nahum Sokolow (in Bemarot Hakeshet, pgs 552-4) distinguishes between the two stages, by calling the first one “solet” and the second one “kemach solet“, which was later abbreviated to simply “solet“, adding to the confusion. But in the end, what distinguishes solet from kemach is quality more than granularity.

As a bonus, there’s an excursus on how “Aramaic semida סמידא gave us the Greek semidalis and the Latin simila,” the latter in the north of Italy becoming “‘powdery flour’ (Italian semola, German semmel, Yiddish zeml, and later the English word ‘simnel’ – cakes or rolls made of fine wheat flour)” and in the south “progressed in the other direction, to the coarser ‘bran.’ From here came the diminutive ‘semolino‘ (from which came the English ‘semolina’) – little bran, i.e. a coarser flour than the generic Italian word for flour ‘farina.'” Fun!


  1. That’s interesting–German (Viennese German, at least) distinguishes between glattes and griffiges Mehl, for fine and coarse flour. I’ve heard elderly women become quite vehement about which type to use in which baked good.

  2. Bill Walderman says

    If my recollection is accurate, “Semmel” in Munich at least means a kind of roll or bun for sausages, something like a hot dog bun, as in “Weisswurst mit Semmel.”

  3. la semoule in French, as in semoule de maïs “corn (maize) meal/flour”. (maïs is a two-syllable word: ma-is).

  4. John Emerson says

    Semolina Pilchard. According to this link, to John Lennon “semolina” was a kind of pudding which he disliked. Gruel, it sounds like.

  5. I’ve similarly wondered about the exact difference in Romanian between the words for corn meal, faina de parumb and malai which are occasionally used interchangeably on packages.

  6. Yeah, semolina pudding was something awful you got at school in England in the fifties & sixties. It’s like a thinner version of milky rice pudding and has a glob of red jam plopped in the centre of the plate. AAAAhh yukk! Of course some people probably liked it.

  7. And of course Swedish “semla” which in Sweden means a pastry made of a wheat bun sliced in two, some of the bread taken out and the remaining hole filled with almond paste and whipped cream, and which is eaten in the run-up to Shrove Tuesday. Among the Swedish-speaking population in Finland, however, it just means any kind of wheat bun, a fact which makes it one of the most known shibboleths between Swedish in Sweden and Finland (what Sweden-Swedes call “semla” Finland-Swedes call “fastlagsbulle”).
    I’ve never heard that the Greek roots of the word extend further to Semitic before, so this was really interesting.

  8. Coarsely ground semolina cooked in milk to a porridge-like consistency (манная каша) is a common infant food in Russia. It can also be eaten as a breakfast food or dessert. Children stereotypically complain about lumps in the porridge and the gross “skin” that forms on top as the porridge cools. Sounds similar to the thing John Lennon disliked.

  9. John Emerson says

    Sounds like an equivalent of cornmeal mush, which I’ve actually liked the few times I’ve had it (as an adult).

  10. Ah, Semolina, my little cauliflower! I have never liked homogeneous, nylon-smooth things like cream of wheat, puddings etc. But this year I have been a devoted slave to cooked semolina, because it’s used in a quick-fix version of rava idli that I discovered in an Indian grocery. On the packet it says “Delhi breakfast mix”, but the Wiki article says it’s South Indian (idli was originally various kinds of fermented cakelets).
    The grocer has recently had trouble getting it, so I make it myself, and eat it morning, noon and night. This is what goes into the semolina while it’s (briefly) cooking:

    Mustard seeds, fresh chile peppers, black pepper, cumin, coriander seed and its fresh leaf form (cilantro), fenugreek seeds, curry leaves, fresh ginger root, sesame seeds, nuts, garlic, scallions, coconut, and the unrefined sugar jaggery are all possibilities.

    I leave out the garlic and onions, and use lots of asafoetida instead, cashew nuts, and sometimes haldi (curcuma). I’m no cook, but I know what I like. None of that Frosted Flakes or croissant nonsense!

  11. John Emerson says

    Somehow that kind of semolina seems like cheating. It seems to me that gruel cannot be tasty if it is to retain its character-building properties.

  12. Quite right, John. Indeed, have you ever known me to exhibit character? Someone who goes out of his way to cast scorn on the croissant, and rebuff the Frosted Flake?

  13. John Emerson says

    You have a cautionary tale in you, Stu, about the evil man who hedonistically adulterated his semolina, and thereby came to an uspeakably horrible end [to be specified more clearly in a later date].

  14. Try Tapioca especially after tracking down frog spawn, then semolina is bludy marvelous, how many flours can be made for the upright ‘uman so that he can be linguistic.

  15. In Hungarian “Zsemle” also means bread roll, and no doubt came from (Austrian) German, as did “perec”(pretzel), “stangli” and the names for lots of other baked stuff.
    As for semolina, I quite enjoy it, and have done whether it was served as “kasza manna” (Polish), or as “grizs” (Transylvanian Hungarian – and Romanian, I believe) On the packet it has some more high falutin’ name. Beats tapioca anyway, and I’d rate it probably as nice as rice pudding.
    Which reminds me – I once went into a milk bar in Poland and ordered “Zupa Mleczna” and a bowl of stew. I thought I was ordering a soup and a main course, but it amused the hell out of the Pani behind the counter. It turned out that zupa mleczna is a kind of milky breakfast dish (for children or the ill) which is not usually served as an entreé!

  16. John Emerson says

    Grizs sounds like “grits”, another coarse grain gruel (corn or hominy in the US), OE grytt / grytta / gryttes, elated to German Grütze, Norse and Scottish grut, and English groats.
    Grut is included in the Urban Dictionary with a variety of nasty meanings and is there derived from institutional gruel, specifically in prisons. Presulably this is the derivation of the slang groaty, grody.
    Kasza and manna (croup) are listed here in Russian form. Apparently kasha is generic gruel and buckwheat is just one common form.

  17. John Emerson says

    Listed here, that is, below in “mentioned in”.

  18. The Slavic root man- seen in Russian манная каша [mannaya kasha] and Polish kasza manna (lumped by Vasmer, in an unusual lapse, with the manna that falls from heaven in the Bible) is the same as the root of Russian манить ‘beckon, lure’ and обман ‘deception’; according to Trubachev, this is because of the deceptive similarity of manna grass (whatever that is) with Раniсum sanguinale (whatever that is).

  19. John Emerson says

    I love those old dictionary definitions: A defined as B, B defined as A.
    Let us all remember that poor Oliver Twist wanted more gruel, not less.

  20. “Раniсum sanguinale (whatever that is).”
    It’s one of the panic grasses, related to maize and sorghum. Most but not all are tropical.
    I wonder to what extent these terms in all these languages refer to the source species. For me “grits” can only mean corn grits, “jook’ can only be rice, and “gruel” doesn’t convey much at all, except that it is made with water instead of milk – milk makes it into porridge, apparently. We didn’t use either of the last two terms to describe actual food. “Gruel” was not actual food; it was just something to torture unwanted children with.

  21. And look what Oliver got for his character-building pains!
    A defined as B, B defined as A
    What you in fact have in dictionaries is something like this:
    1.) A defined using R, B, S (let’s suppose you already know S)
    2.) R defined using R1
    3.) B defined using B1
    4.) R1 defined using M, X (M you already know)
    5.) X defined using N, A (N you already know)
    In a sense you get back to A again, but because of everything in between, which you knew, you are now pretty sure what A means.
    Those look like formal production rules, don’t they! The implicit recursion is actually a help, because it creates mention loops. For years I have used this technique to look up French words in French dictionaries, and Spanish words in Spanish dictionaries. A thesaurus is not as helpful, because it merely lists of words for which you have no use context.
    It’s gruelling (sic), but it builds semantic character.
    I sometimes suspect that the Petit Robert entries have been deliberately designed to build character. Every time I look up a non-intellectual word, something that turns out to be an agricultural or marine term of art, say, it takes me several minutes to run the course. But I learn a lot about plowing fields and the high seas.
    It would be cool if more dictionaries were indeed deliberately designed in this way. The compilators would use software to detect mention loops through the entries, and add a few words to this and that entry in order to create smaller loops.

  22. John Emerson says

    I have used the same method with Chinese. It has the advantage of strengthening your understanding of the language in multiple ways. Which is only to say that five minutes with a French dictionary is more valuable than twenty seconds with a French-English dictionary. (When I’m in the mood I just keep looking up more words, increasingly more distant from my original query.)
    One kind of thing that dictionaries without pictures are very bad at defining, not through their failings but by the nature of the case, is species of anything. I looked up what turned out to be “otter” once, and defining an otter strictly in words isn’t that easy, especially when the animal is in a distant land where the species might be different. Translations from Chinese from certain times and places feature raccoon-dogs and fox-badgers, which are actually species we don’t have around here. (Hint: do not call a Southern Chinese “the son of a fox-badger”. At least, don’t do so if you are transported 1700 years into the past.)

  23. I haven’t heard the word “grut” since I was a kid. To me it’s coarsely ground grain (I don’t know if it has to be a specific cereal) used as a pigs’ fodder. I remember shovelling grain into the grinder, but I can’t have been very old when we got rid of the pigs.
    I’ve never used the word, but I know “semulje” in Danish. I think usually disparagingly used as synonym for ‘gruel’.
    Funny – one of my few, but favourite recollection from childhood is having barley porridge with applesauce with my paternal grandparents. I’ve taken to making it, myself, now, but of course it never tastes as good as memory lets on.

  24. David Marjanović says

    In Hungarian “Zsemle” also means bread roll, and no doubt came from (Austrian) German

    No idea how [s]* could turn into [ʒ]… but then you mention grizs, which looks suspiciously like German Grieß if we assume the same correspondence…
    * Yes, [s], not [z].

    one of the panic grasses


    and ordered “Zupa Mleczna”

    You actually ordered milk soup!?!
    I’ll just stop here and go to bed rather than think up graphic descriptions of my disgust.

  25. I haven’t heard the word “grut” since I was a kid.
    Don’t you guys have grøt in Denmark? Rømmegrøt? (‘På Vestlandet tilsatte man ofte semuljegryn’, it says in the danskewikipedia).

  26. John Emerson says

    Rømmegrøt is also not character building, what with the sour cream and cinnamon and sugar. It’s apparently a summer dish in Norway but is served around Christmas in Minnesota. What I remember most, though, is rodgrot, a berry pudding I only had once when I was about eight. “Grot” apparently just means “pudding” of any description because rodgrot is just berries, sugar, and a little cornstarch.

  27. a basin of gruel, thin, but not too thin

  28. Mr. ø is quoting Miss Austen:
    “The gruel came and supplied a great deal to be said — much praise and many comments — undoubting decision of its wholesomeness for every constitution, and pretty severe Philippics upon the many houses where it was never met with tolerable; — but, unfortunately, among the failures which the daughter had to instance, the most recent, and therefore most prominent, was in her own cook at South End, a young woman hired for the time, who never had been able to understand what she meant by a basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin. Often as she had wished for and ordered it, she had never been able to get any thing tolerable.”

  29. Incidentally, I had not realized that “a basin of gruel” was a fixed collocation; googling it gets over 38,000 hits. Anybody know what such a basin looked like?

  30. John Emerson says

    You just know that Emma’s inept cook was Irish. Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, that’s all that those people know.

  31. This was not Emma’s cook, but Isabella’s. Emma saw things differently from her sister and her father.
    “My poor dear Isabella,” said he, fondly taking her hand, and interrupting, for a few moments, her busy labours for some one of her five children—”How long it is, how terribly long since you were here! And how tired you must be after your journey! You must go to bed early, my dear—and I recommend a little gruel to you before you go.—You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together. My dear Emma, suppose we all have a little gruel.”
    Emma could not suppose any such thing, knowing as she did, that both the Mr. Knightleys were as unpersuadable on that article as herself;—and two basins only were ordered.

  32. John, grøt is usually translated as ‘porridge’, but I don’t think it’s a very accurate translation. I certainly don’t think of rømmegrøt as porridge.
    One of the great features of the Norwegian Way of Life is the packages of rømmegrøt that are available at any supermarket.

  33. I hadn’t given it a second though that “grut” and “grød” could be the same word. I don’t know what Dr Mrs Arhur, Sir, understands by “porridge”, but I used it upthread to translate “byggrød” as “barley porridge”. My apologies if that is incorrect. I believe I’ve heard of “barley soup” in English, but I don’t know if it’s the same thing – grød as I make is most definitely firmer than anything I’d call soup.

  34. John Emerson says

    It seems to me that it’s a blanket pudding-porridge word, sliding over to ground grain fed to livestock.
    Livestock food is called “chow” in the US, which is also a generic name for food, especially meals prepared for large groups.

  35. Sili: I believe I’ve heard of “barley soup” in English
    Yes, my grandmother made a barley and lamb soup that she always called ‘Irish stew’. I wouldn’t think of anything that had a watery consistency as being porridge, but maybe I have just been lucky.

  36. John Emerson says

    Hog, calf, dog, cattle, horse, duck, sheep and lamb chow can all be bought. They’re just mixes of miscellaneous foods appropriate to the species. It’s impossible to Google “chicken chow”, however, without being flooded by Chinese dishes made with chicken. It doesn’t help much to do -mien, -mein because there are just two many chicken chow dishes.

  37. Grizs sounds like “grits”, another coarse grain gruel (corn or hominy in the US), OE grytt / grytta / gryttes, elated to German Grütze, Norse and Scottish grut, and English groats.

    And the OED has just added goetta “A mixture of cooked ground meat (typically pork), oatmeal, and seasonings, usually served in fried slices at breakfast,” with the following etymology:

    Apparently < German regional (Low German: western) Götte, Görte, variants (with metathesis) of Grütte, denoting various kinds of gruel, porridge, and (by extension) other kinds of ground or mashed food (Middle Low German görte, grütte: see grit n.2).
    Compare German Grützwurst large sausage made of ground meat and grain, lit. ‘gruel sausage’ (17th cent. or earlier).

    First citation: 1947 Boone County (Kentucky) Recorder 30 Oct. (advt.) Meat specials… Goetta oatmeal sausage—Special Price.

  38. That reminds me of Gruts for Tea, by the incomparable Ivor Cutler. I always thought it was a word he made up for humorous effect, but evidently not.

    As it happens, when I was in Glasgow a while back, there was an elderly gentleman on the bus from the airport into the city whose voice sounded uncannily like Ivor’s–that same soft and oddly precise enunciation.

  39. I wrote an essay about this titled “Flour Power“.

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