Q: On a recent trip to London, I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Antony and Cleopatra. Hence this question. How did the phrase “blown rose” come to mean a rose that’s bloomed?
A: Let’s set the scene for anyone who isn’t familiar with the passage in Shakespeare’s play. When Cleopatra is told that a messenger from Caesar has arrived, she remarks to her ladies-in-waiting:
What, no more ceremony? See, my women!
Against the blown rose may they stop their nose
That kneel’d unto the buds. Admit him, sir.”
The bud that once brought admirers to their knees is now a fading flower that no one stops to sniff.
The adjective “blown” has been used since Anglo-Saxon times to mean “in bloom” or “having bloomed” (the usage in Antony and Cleopatra), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
However, the phrasal adjective “full-blown” is more common today in describing a flower at its peak, as well as anything else that’s fully developed.
When “blown” is used by itself now to describe a flower, it often refers to one that’s over the hill, according to our searches of digital databases.
How, you ask, did the adjective “blown” get its flowering sense?
We’ll have to go back to the Anglo-Saxons, when Old English had two distinct verbs “blow,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
One verb, written bláwan in Old English, meant to send out air, while the other, blówan, meant to come into flower. They had the same past tense, bléow.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the air sense to the reconstructed base bhlē- and the flowering sense to bhel-, but it says the two roots were “possibly identical” in prehistoric times.
Both verbs “blow” are now in standard dictionaries, with identical spellings and conjugations, but the “blow” that refers to the movement of air is much more common than the one that refers to flowering.
Interestingly, some people conflate the two senses, according to examples we’ve seen, and believe a “blown rose” refers to a rose whose petals are blown by the wind.
The earliest example in the OED for the verb “blow” in the flowering sense is from Old English Leechdoms, a medical work dated at around 1000: “Ðonne heo grewð & blewð” (“When they grow and blow”).
The two earliest Oxford example for the verb with the airy sense are from the West Saxon Gospels (circa 1000), a translation of the four Gospels from Latin into the West Saxon dialect of Old English.
Here’s an example from the Book of Luke: “Þonne ge geseoð suðan blawan” (“When the south wind blows”).
We’ll end with two lines from “The Lotos-Eaters,” an 1832 poem by Tennyson:
There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass.