Q: I’ve been thinking about the term “deflower” in the sense of what was done to the 35-year-old schoolteacher played by Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel. How did a word that literally means to strip a plant of flowers come to figuratively mean to take away a woman’s virginity?
A: You’ll be surprised to hear this, but it seems that “deflower” was used in its sexual sense before it was used horticulturally.
Could this be an example of a word used figuratively before it was used literally? Not so fast.
The earliest usage cited by the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “The lust of the gelding deflourede the yunge womman.”
In this citation, according to the OED, the word meant “to deprive (a woman) of her virginity; to violate, ravish.”
However the OED doesn’t label this first usage figurative. It says elsewhere that around 1300 the word “flower” meant, among other things, virginity.
So in the Middle Ages, “flower” meant more than just a blossom on a plant.
The sense of “deflower” that you cite as literal, “to deprive or strip of flowers,” isn’t recorded in the OED until 1630, in the poems of William Drummond of Hawthornden: “The freezing winds our gardens do defloure”
Nowadays, the verb “deflower” has two meaning: (1) to deprive a woman of her virginity, or (2) to destroy the innocence or beauty of something.