Issue 201, page 1

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The Outdoors

We were reading something about mead (the fermented honey drink) and wondered if it was related to meadow.  We found, or rather, reminded ourselves, that it is not, but there is another mead that is. Meadow, mead (a grassy field), mow, and the math in aftermath are all related, coming from the same Indo-European root, *me-, "to cut down grass with a sickle or scythe".  So a meadow is a place where grass was cut for hay.  Today we may think of meadows as natural places where wildflowers and animals abound, but in the Old World, many meadows were probably mown by man for thousands of years.  The word is very old and dates from at least the 10th century (as do the other words mentioned above) in English, and there are cognates in several other Germanic languages.

We were surprised that we had not discussed aftermath before.  Today it means the "state or condition left by a (usually unpleasant) event", but it was originally "a second mowing of grass" or "the crop of grass which springs up after the mowing in early summer".  It is not clear why cut grass came to be equated with an unpleasant event - perhaps it is from the vantage point of the fauna living in the grass when it was cut (just kidding!  No letters, please!).  In any event, math simply means "a mowing".

Let us examine forest, since (sometimes) forests surround meadows.  English got it from Old French forest and it first turns up in the English written record in about 1300.  It was taken by French apparently as a learned Latin construction in the Middle Ages - forestem silva "the outside wood (the wood not within a park fence)", ultimately from Latin foris "outside". Foris is thought to be a derivative of fores "door", suggesting that anything beyond the door (of a structure) was "outside". That is true for English outside, as well. The earliest example of forest in English refers to a special wooded area of the king, set apart for hunting (1297).

There is also glade.  This one is a bit of a puzzle.  It dates from the first half of the 16th century and since then has meant "a clear open space or passage in a wood or forest, whether natural or produced by the cutting down of trees".  This suggests sunny spots within the dark (shaded) forest.  If that is the ultimate meaning of the word, then it very likely comes from the same root that produced glad and gleam.  That root is *ghel- "to shine".  Other words from this root are gold, glint, glisten and glass.  The only problem is that there is the form glode, which means basically the same as glade.  Apparently, the laws of word formation in English do not support glode coming from *ghel-.  Some have suggested that glode is simply a northern English form of glade but uncertainty persists.  Curiously, in the 17th century, glade began to take on the contradictory meaning of "shade".

There are then words for stands of trees.  One is copse, which is what etymologists call a "syncopated" version of coppice.  These words mean "a small wood or thicket consisting of underwood and small trees grown for the purpose of periodical cutting."  The connection of "cutting" turns up in the words' etymology: they come via Old French from Latin colpare "to cut with a blow", ultimately from Latin colaphus "blow, cuff".  Here in the U.S. we don't hear coppice very much; it's more common in the U.K., where it is also used as a verb.  Coppice turns up in the written record in 1538, 40 years before copse.

Grove is an older word for a stand of trees.  There is no sense of "cutting" in this word.  Instead, it is noted that groves were often planted by early peoples as places to honor their gods.  It dates from the 9th century in English.  Strangely, there are no known cognates in any other Germanic languages.  The best etymologists can do is take it back to a hypothetical root *graibo-, which also gave us greave, a word of similar meaning.  Greave dates from about 1000.  The surnames Greave, Greaves, Grove, and Grover are topographical surnames referring to one who originally lived in or near a grove or a greave.

Since a lot of the words discussed here have to do with trees, we thought we would reprint our discussion of the etymology of tree from Issue 182:

Oak is a very old Germanic word, too: it is eiche in German, eik in Dutch, ek in Swedish and eg in Danish.  These all derive from the proto-Germanic root *aiks.  Because oaks were among the most common trees in ancient Europe, the Indo-European word for "oak", *deru- or *doru- became the English word "tree". That hypothetical root also produced Greek drus (which gave English dryad), Welsh derwen (possible source of English druid), Swedish trd and Danish tr, both meaning "tree".

If we don't stop cutting down so many trees, most of these words will become obsolete!

All definitions in this issue of Spotlight are from the Oxford English Dictionary.

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