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On the etymology of garden words

Where our garden words might have come from

by : Nov 1, 2015

The origins of words that are used in the vocabulary of gardening are a source of endless fascination for me. This page is a collection of words that have particular meaning for me personally, with speculation on how their presence and form have been changed by use over the years.

I will refer to Etymonline frequently since this is a good source of information about words. So here is an acknowledgement of that source of information www.etymonline.com. Also Wiktionary at en.wiktionary.org.

-age suffix

I've often wondered why we have such words as tillage, forage, leafage, stumpage, herbage, silage, greenage and the old bushelage and flowerage, but we don't have terms such as compostage, rakage, diggage, forkage, and weedage. French also uses age words liberally in horticulture, as in bouturage (striking cuttings) and marcottage (layering). We even have newer terms such as haylage (silage from alfalfa specifically in some locations) as new technologies such as wrapping large round bales in plastic film become available. The older use of the -age suffix seems to relate to vague amounts of something generated as a result of a process. So stumpage would be a vague number of trees on a lot, greenage an uncountable number of leaves in a forest. I guess the demand for a general term is not seen as necessary, since so much is done by machine and transferred almost immediately into a countable form. I would support the adoption of such words as compostage, rakage, diggage, forkage, and weedage. With the exception of the first, where "compost" has been de facto adopted as the uncountable noun, they have a kind of musical ring to them. "Please put this barrowful of weedage on the compost heap, just the weedage, not the stones. Then remove the stones from the rakage."


In the BBC production of "The Victorian Kitchen Garden" there is a reference to a bodge, a wheeled machine for transporting water. You can collect rainwater from eavestroughing or guttering into static barrels, but carting the water to various places in the garden is not so easy. The bodge is a compromise machine: it needs to be open at the top for dipping a watering can, but this openness means that unless the pusher is careful, much of the water will slosh about and spill over the edges if too full. To reduce the disturbance the bodge is mounted on wheels and is pivoted to ensure that the water container is always level. Wiktionary has a reference to a bodge as the water in which a blacksmith would quench iron heated in the forge. This container is also seen in garages, the water used as a test for air leaks in components such as rubber tubes. So we might imagine that bodge in the garden sense comes from an idea to mount the forge bodge on wheels.


Rarely seen today, a clamp was at one time used to store root vegetables such as potatoes or mangel-wurtzels. It consisted of a pile of the tubers or roots closely packed together, covered in a layer of straw and then of earth to act as insulation against the cold of winter; ventilation is provided by a chimney to allow moisture to escape. We have to dig for a root for the word in Etymonline, and perhaps we find something in the origins of the word "clam" which refers to a Proto-Germanic word "klam" meaning to press or squeeze together which seems as though it can be related. The BBC series "The Victorian Farm" also has a reference to the clamp being called a "tump" dialectically.

Trees can also be "clumped" together, implying a number of specimens closely planted together, often of the same variety; thus a clump of elms or a clump of beech trees. See also "clod" below.

Clod and tilth

It seems profitable to treat these two words together, since in a garden way they speak of the opposite of each other. A clod implies a sticky mass of earth, particularly clay. Sticky masses are something to avoid in the garden since roots can only penetrate clods with difficulty, and when it is easy the roots tend to be those of garden dwellers you wish to discourage. A tilth on the other hand is sufficiently cloddish to have structure, but with air spaces and room for roots and particularly root hairs to explore without difficulty.

The plough can turn clods and expose them to weathering (tillage), which may encourage a tilth due to the action of wind, rain and frost. Gardeners also speak of "forcing a tilth" with machines such as rototillers which beat the clods into smaller pieces. However the action of later rains may just clod the forced tilth back into lumps again, unless in the meantime roots have managed to penetrate and keep the earth apart.

Tilth ideally comes about by the action of natural soil actors such as worms and humus. The tilth so formed tends to hold its cultural qualities despite the effect of rain and irrigation. Tilth is an ideal medium to receive seeds, for the encouragement of tree roots, and for retaining moisture and fertility.


While strictly not a gardening technical term, since gardeners often use the word it might be as well to circumnavigate it a little. It generally belongs in the saying "A load of old codswallop" where it implies that the load is of no use. Thus a delivery of manure that is too fresh for the garden might be greeted with this imprecation, and the carter knows that she had maybe better drop the price a bit since the customer will be put to extra work before it was ready as fertilizer.

The Internet (Etymonline and others) has a number of suggestions as to where the term comes from, but one that has not been explored that I can see is a possible association with "A slap in the belly with a wet fish" which implies something equally useless. I had not heard this term until I arrived in Canada where there is a much stronger association with the cod fishery than my native land, and the word "wallop" as a slap or punch is well known to me as a result of ears being boxed from time to time in my mischievous youth. Being walloped with a cod would in fact amount to the same thing as a slap in the belly with a wet fish, so it is possibly an alternate contender as an origin for codswallop.


Gardeners have a special meaning for a crock. Its etymology is clear as a pot (see Etymonline), but gardeners speak of pots as whole pots and crocks as pieces of broken earthenware pots, in other contexts it would be a shard. The received wisdom is that you use a crock over the hole in the bottom of a clay pot. In recent years some tests have indicated that it does not matter if there is a crock in the pot or not with respect to good drainage and preventing root rots.

However that is not the whole story. Consider the historic gardener in his potting shed working with dry soil which tends to run through a big hole in the bottom of a pot rather like sand in an hourglass. A little water causes the soil to clump and stays in the pot, but to ensure that roots are completely covered, soil on the dry side works better. Once the roots are covered, then you can add more water. A crock stops the dry soil from running through the hole as you are filling the pot. Modern composts of course have different characteristics and combined with the smaller more numerous holes in a plastic pot render the whole situation quite different.

Consider another situation, that of repotting. You have to remove the plant with root ball intact from the present pot. Most of the time they come out really easily. Earthenware pots were often imperfect in shape, and the irregularly shaped sides might make it awkward to remove a plant from its pot. Tapping the rim of an inverted pot to help the plant come out might crack the pot. Turning the pot over would reveal the crock in the hole, a ready point for applying a dowel to help push the plant out. Without the crock or shard, the dowel would just bury itself in the soil.


Etymonline has it right in that a drill is a small furrow; gardeners use them to open the soil to receive the seed prior to recovering. One link back to the obsolete meaning of "trickling stream" is the effect we see when a volume of water suspends silt in its flowing body, deposits it leaving a smooth surface when the flow subsides, and then the smaller subsequent flows carve shallow lines in the loess. The result is an ideal place to sow seed; it has the moisture and is loose enough to cover the seed sown and allow air to penetrate to the root area.


"Garden" and its close cousin "yard" contain the sense of an enclosure, something guarded or protected, either to keep valuable things from escaping or dangerous things from coming inside or both. Garden and yard have slightly different meangings depending on the geographic region: in some places you can play in a yard, which will be protected by a fence which stops children from running into a road, but a garden is often dedicated to the growing of flowers and vegetables. In other places garden is interpreted loosely as a yard for playing or barbecues or a place to grow things.


It's odd that we speak mostly of germination in terms of seeds that germinate. But as Etymonline points out, germination includes the idea of buds which can suddenly sprout into life.


It is interesting that the shoot used as a scion in the grafting process derives from the Latin for a pencil or stylus, a writing implement, presumably based on the shape of the scion. So perhaps we can conclude that the skill of writing preceded the skill of grafting. The origin of the word scion is apparently quite obscure.


Hoe, it seems, comes from the same root as hew, as in hewing a log. It's the action of chopping, bringing the sharp tool high, then down low using force of gravity to attack an object, log or soil. That sounds rather like a turnip hoe, and is the action frequently seen in African contexts where the ground can be hard and dry. Modern hoes may use a somewhat different action, with pushing or sliding, but retain the class of a hoe-type tool, that is, heavy, flat and sharp.


Hook is a very old word for a very old tool. We don't see them much these days since the job can be done by machine more easily but more loudly. A hook does not give you tinnitus. Easily constructed by a blacksmith, it is a C shaped curve of iron with a sharp edge on the inside of the curve. Sometimes the sharp edge is serrated, particularly when reaping grain with a hook and bundling carefully into sheaves; the serrations help to bite into the hard stalks of the grain. The plain hook was often used to trim grass in confined spaces where there was not enough room to swing a scythe. The person using the hook would carry the hook in one hand and a plain wooden crook in the other; the wooden crook was used to pull long grass back to reveal the base of the grass or weeds to be cut. It appears that while both hook and crook mean a bent or angled tool in English, the difference lies in the fact that the hook had a sharp edge and the crook not so. If crooks had sharp edges they would not be suitable for catching sheep, as in as in the crook used by shepherds to seize the hind legs of sheep.

Hooks can vary in shape and size according to the job at hand; from thin elegant reaping hooks to large flat bladed bill-hooks for wood and poles which resemble axes with very short handles more than reaping hooks. Some bill hooks could be mounted on long handles for reaching up into trees. In a military context, a bill hook is known as a fascine hook, used for coppicing and collecting, and trimming bundles of wooden poles to act as a wall against which earth can be piled to create a defensive position.

Etymonline discusses the saying "by hook or by crook" - I'm not persuaded by the narrative proposed. What makes more sense to me is the story about wood cutting rights in a forest. Trees were a carefully guarded resource by landowners, and unauthorized cutting of live wood was a serious offence; however local families often had the right to collect dead and fallen branches for heating and cooking. In addition they could harvest anything they could reach still on the tree, from the ground, using a hook or a crook. That is, dead branches reachable from the ground which could be easily pulled from underneath. Anything you could get by hook or crook was fair game and helped the landowner keep the forest floor clear for forestry operations. Take each story as you like, or invent your own; however see "common of estovers" in http://info.sjc.ox.ac.uk/forests/glossary.htm.


We all know a garden line. It is a string wound on a stick which is stretched between two points which acts as a guide to drawing straight lines in the ground for planting, marking out beds. Etymonline draws it from Latin "linea" which comes from "lin" the word for flax. As gardeners we know that the garden line needs to be strong, flexible, resistant to rot, stretchy and hard wearing. A related word is cord, that is, woven or braided flax thread. A nice feature of a stretchy garden line is to be able to set out the line under tension over a patch of ground to be sown, then lift the line in the middle, raise it up several feet to stretch it even more, then let is snap back to the ground. In fine soil this leaves a perfectly straight, very shallow groove in the soil which can be used as a marker for drawing a drill with a hoe, meaning you can remove the line thus protecting it from further wear and tear.


Etymonline is quite persuasive on this one. "Hortus" and "yard" as component words do not graft together well but could indicate that the current sense of a protected place to grow fruit began as a protected place to grow all sorts of horticultural produce. It's hard to argue against the idea.


(See Etymonline "plash"): The idea here is in interlacing, such as the interweaving of tree branches to form a natural vault in a pleached avenue


Potting is just that, putting a plant in a pot. Gardeners speak of "potting on" or "potting up"; both can mean transplanting a seedling or a cutting from a large flat containing many young plants into separate pots for growing on, or when plants fill a small pot and are moved up to a larger pot to give the root ball more room to grow.

Prune (the verb)

This word is a real puzzle. Etymonline suggests it might be linked to provigner in French, but the French word evokes a particular situation, a particular purpose. In English we know it as "to cut back", usually with care and attention towards shaping the resulting re-growth in a way favourable to esthetic appearance or flower or fruit production. In the Iberian languages the notion of pruning is covered by the Latin putare, to clean. In French the idea is carried by tailler or regulation of the length or height or size of something by removing a part. In English you can prune a shoot, that is cut back a single shoot, or prune a tree, that is shape the whole plant. We use the same word. In other languages you might choose a different word depending on the situation, the purpose behind the cutting, perhaps propagation.


As Wiktionary notes, this is a term relating to the stealing of fruit. Theft of fruit is always a concern for gardeners and farmers, and frequently a reason for the walls around gardens, where the produce could be kept under lock and key. Rough cider in the South of England is popularly called "scrumpy," which is quite possibly derived from the verb "to scrump," which might also be a possible origin for the word "scrumptious." Etymonline also speculates on the origin of this word, although my feeling is that the connection proposed is rather more tenuous than my own, which perhaps reflects on the fact that the cider was more delicious due to the apples having cost nothing except the risk of being caught and had one's ears boxed.


In Thomas Hardy's novel "The Woodlanders" there is a description of shrouding a tree; the operation here is to remove the side branches from the main trunk up to a certain height. Etymonline explains that shroud can be seen in terms of "clothing", in this case the lateral tree branches. The sense extends to the nautical web of ropes which both support and maintain the position of a mast on a ship and provide the means of clambering up the mast to manipulate the sails.


There is an immediate link to "espada" (Spanish: sword, which may have come to English via Holland) for this word. Presumably it is not a big effort for a blacksmith to change from forging a sword to forging a spade. They are both long, flat, heavy pieces of iron with a handle and a sharp edge. This might be particularly so in a military context, when soldiers might be required to weild swords (fighting) and spades (construction of earthworks). The essential role of a spade is to cut into the soil and exert a rectangular or pointed purchase (prying) on a volume of soil for opening or turning. French decided to go with beche which in turn comes from bec, emphasizing the pointed nature of the tool and might recall the action of a plough which also cuts into the earth. A garden spade, designed as it is to cut into earth with a flat edge and pry upwards a rectangular and not pointed volume of soil is probably a recent (just a few centuries) adaptation of the pointed version. You need the pointed version of the spade when cutting into sod (turf) in order to penetrate the surface vegetation.


In horticulture we speak of striking cuttings; this is the action of taking cut tips of plant shoots which have no roots and placing them in an environment favourable to encouraging roots to grow. Etymonline speaks of two senses, that of a gentle stroke (stroking a cat) or a sudden movement (striking a bell). The medical sense of a "stroke of God's hand" leading to a cerebral bleeding has a sense of the sudden change from one state to another as a result of the action of a higher power. The appearance of roots on an otherwise rootless shoot can also be perhaps seen as divine intervention, and is something that happens suddenly after a period has elapsed, thus preserving the original sense.


Gardeners use the term trench to denote a cut in the garden soil the width and depth of a spade. Trenching is deliberate deep digging to incorporate manures and fertilizers. Trench comes from the French "tranche" meaning a slice or cut in the soil.


According to Etymonline, trowel comes from the kitchen, a diminutive of a stirring spoon or ladle. In a garden sense, the trowel is used to both dig shallowly and transfer a quantity of soil. A trowel needs the qualities of a spade and a shovel, the strength for some prying and the capacity for a volume of soil. Gardeners keep a collection of such tools for different tasks.


This tool, used for making haybands in a garden context, is no more than a brace used in carpentry or masonry without the drill. The drill bit is replaced with a gripper to fasten the end of the hayband, which is then twisted as it lengthens, forming a sort of very coarse, loose and airy rope. We can find a reference to wimble in Etymonline under "gimlet", also a tool for drilling. The word appears to come via the Dutch language.

More to come...

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