Corn, cornflour and cornstarch – different meanings in different places

Today is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta – an anniversary of real note, asserting as it does the fundamental principal that the ruler is subject to the law, and the rights of individuals should be respected.

However, I have to admit that the link between those lofty statements and an attempt to detangle the confusion regarding the use of the word ‘corn’ is a bit tenuous…

The illustration above was used in an excellent BBC History Magazine article written by David Carpenter. It looks likely that it was actually drawn about a century after Magna Carta but in any case the point it was illustrating was that Magna Carta was fine for people who were free, but it didn’t extend to people who weren’t.

The caption of the illustration said that it showed ‘peasants reaping corn’. I looked carefully at the illustration and it didn’t look like what I think of as corn (I was brought up in Canada).

So I asked a farmer friend and he confirmed “I suspect it is either wheat for bread making, barley for beer or oats for animal feed. My bet is wheat. You can observe how arduous the task must have been. Nothing’s changed!”

Interestingly, in Italian the word for corn is ‘granoturco’ (also sometimes ‘granturco’). It stems from the word grano or ‘grain’ and turco in the sense of ‘exotic’, ‘foreign’ and ‘colonial’…. an interesting use of ‘turco’ for foreigner.


So what do the terms for corn, cornflour, cornstarch and so on all mean in different places?
UK North America use
Maize,‘corn on the cob’, ‘sweetcorn’

The word ‘maize’ derives from the Spanish ‘maiz’ which in turn comes from the term used by the Taino people living in the Caribbean at the time Columbus arrived

Corn (a shortened form of ‘Indian corn’ the staple food of the native American Indians). The Australians and New Zealanders also use the word in this way Whole…as a vegetable… on the cob.Or the kernels can be dried and processed and made into cornmeal, grits etc
corn (any cereal crop)
cornmeal – effectively polenta, see below When finely ground it’s called cornflour in North America Coarse flour made from dried maize
cornflour (masa). The Australians also call it cornflour. Just to confuse matters they also have wheaten cornflour…made from wheat not maize. Corn starch Cornflour is a fine white powder separated from the protein and other components of the maize flour. It has no taste. Its main use is as a thickener – it doesn’t cause cloudiness like ordinary wheat flour does.  If you add it to batter it increases crispyness. It’s also used for making tortillas and corn bread.If you use it as a thickener it needs to be combined first with a little cold water to make a paste.If you can’t find cornflour use arrowroot.
grits Grits are coarse ground cornmeal. See what are grits for more information.
polenta. See what is the difference between grits and polenta Made from coarse ground yellow flint corn

If you are interested in Magna Carta, David Carpenter’s book on the subject is an excellent starting point.


This post is dedicated to H V B.


“The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting.”

-Thomas Traherne


Music to listen to as you read

Try Watching The Wheat, by John Thomas, played on the harp by Amy Turk.

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