Thousand Year Old Green
I’m working on writing a song that will be titled ’Thousand Year Old Green’ which has me thinking a lot about the woods that were a home to our language, to English. A thousand years ago that would have been Old English, ‘Beowulf’ English, a mongrel Western Germanic tongue with underappreciated Celtic neighbors, quite a bit of old Roman infrastructure lying about and frequent Scandinavian invaders. I wanted a better picture of what the woods meant to early English so I started this list which quickly grew out of bounds, I tried to keep it to words that had specific Old English precedents but I was too fascinated by trees that I didn’t realize were newer introductions to the ‘word-forest’ - I left out lots of New World trees, no Catalpas, no Guavas, but Hickory seemed too important to my experience to leave out, and I left out lots of trees from the Mediterranean and the ‘Orient’ like Date Palms and Cinnamon, but Olives? Pomegranates? I had to put some of them in, again, mainly because of very subjective feelings about what constitutes my own forest culture. Perhaps I’ll come back and keep adding more and more to this but for right now, forgive and enjoy my rather idiosyncratic selection of trees and shrubs and bushes.
ALDER: Old English ‘alor’, with early Germanic cousins including Old Norse ölr, and even further back it likely shares an ancestor with Balto-Slavic names for this tree, Polish ‘olcha’ and Lithuanian ‘alksnis’, as well as the Latin ‘alnus’.
ALMOND: Used in English around 1300, Late Old English actually used ‘amygdales’ on occasion, completely skipping the vagaries that led French to lean towards ‘amande’ which it favored likely because of the Medieval Latin ‘amandus’ meaning loveable, and Spanish inclining towards ‘almendra’ likely because of its many Arabic loanwords that started with ‘al-‘. The original Latin word ‘amygdala’ is much closer to the earlier Greek ‘amygdalos’.
APRICOT: ‘Abrecock’ appears in 1550 adapted from Gallo-Iberian words like Catalan ‘abercoc’ and Portuguese ‘albricoque’ which they had from Arabic ‘al-birquq’, the Arabs picked the word up from Byzantine Greek, ‘berikokkia’ and that is likely adapted from Latin ‘malum praecoquum’ - precocious fruit, thought of as an early-ripening peach.
ASH: Ash trees were ‘asshe’ in Middle English, ‘aesce’ in Old English the West Germanic languages have many cognates including Old Norse ‘askr’. Names for the ash tree are similar enough across Indo European languages to suggest a much earlier ancestor, Lithuanian ‘uosis’ and Armenian ‘haci’ are good examples of this. Unrelated to the term for burnt cinders.
ASPEN: the tree was called ‘spe’ in Old English, ’sp’ in Old Norse, likely adding ‘-en’ was meant for a descriptive, for ‘aspen’ wood or ‘aspen’ bark and this became the more typical word for the tree itself.
BAY: In the 1520’s this word was being used to refer to the bay-laurel shrub however the word was used earlier like it’s antecedent ‘baie’ from 12th century Old French to mean a berry, or the nut or fruit of a tree, coming from ’baca’ in Latin which also provided Spanish and Italian variants.
BEECH: Old English ‘bece’ and earlier ‘boece’ coming from older Germanic languages, with contemporary relatives like Old Norse - ‘bok’. Linguists trace it back far enough to have a common ancestor with Latin ‘fagus’ (beech) and Greek ‘phegos’ (oak). It is not too much of a stretch to relate the Old English word for book (‘boc’) to the word for beech, beechwood tablets were used for inscribing runes, and a number of other terms for writing and book relate to earlier words for trees and tree bark (notably, librum was an earlier Latin word for the inner bark of trees).
BIRCH: Old English, berc and notably the name for the ‘B’ rune, beorc. A large family of Indo European words denote birches or birch like trees especially in Germanic and Balto-Slavic languages, Old Norse used ‘börk’ obviously the root of Swedish and Icelandic ‘björk’, Ossetian had ‘barz’ and Lithuanian uses ‘beržas’.
BOX: Old English, from Latin ‘buxus’ and Greek before that used ‘pyxos’, the tree is native to Italy. Boxwood was considered useful enough that when we call a squarish wooden container a ‘box’ it’s also from the name of this tree.
BROOM: Old English ‘brom’ used for this sort of leggy shrub of course also gives us the word for a bundle of twigs used for sweeping. As well, a thicket of thorny bushes with berries became ‘braemelberies’ eventually shortened to ‘bramble’.
CAPER: I assumed these would be caper-berries, goat-berries, but no, apparently the caper bush has been called ‘capparis’ in Latin going back to Greek ‘kapparis’ and Arabic and Persian also got their words from this non-goat related source.
CEDAR: late Old English ‘ceder’ and Old French ‘cedre’ came from Latin ‘cedrus’ from Greek ‘kedrus.’
CHERRY: Old English did use a form ‘ciris’ from Latin, but lost this word only to replace it with the related Old French ‘cherise’ by 1300. The term was seen as plural and so 'cherry' became standard as the singular. Latin ceresia comes from Greek ‘kerasos’ for the cherry tree.
CHESTNUT: 1510’s ‘chesten’ + ‘nut’, from Middle English ‘chasteine’ from Old French ‘chastain’ (12th century) from Latin ‘castanea’ from Greek ‘kastaneia’ which may have come from Asia Minor along with the tree itself, in Armenian the tree is called ‘kaskeni’.
CORNEL: 1550’s from German ‘cornel’ and earlier ‘cornul’ from French and Latin before that, the Latin ‘cornum’ may have some reference in Greek ‘kerasos’, cherry. Apparently there’s no relation to the many Germanic terms for a grain or seed, including Old Norse ‘korn’ that gave english ‘corn’ and ‘kernel’ but the semi-precious stone ‘carnelian’ gets its name by an odd combination of the hazel-cherry ‘cornel’ and, because of their color, the words for flesh that give us ‘carnal’.
CURRANT: This word comes from the phrase ‘raysyn of Curans’ - raisins of Corinth - appearing about 1500 from Anglo French. It was later, in the 1570’s that this word became used for fruit bushes newly introduced to England, which of course are not raisins at all.
CYPRESS: from 12th century Old French ‘cipres’ taken from Latin and before it Greek, ‘kyparissos.’
ELDER: from Old English ellaern possibly related to alder.
ELM: Old English ‘elm’ with contemporary Germanic cousins including Old Norse ‘almr’, the word’s roots run back far enough to be related to Latin ‘ulmus’ and Old Irish ‘lem’.
FIG: some Old English sources used ‘fic’ more directly from the Latin word, but by the early 13th century ‘fig’ was being used from Old French ‘figue’ from Latin via Old Provencal ‘figa’. The Latin ‘ficus’ is similar enough to Greek ’sykon’ and even Armenian ’t’uz’ to suggest an earlier Eastern Mediterranean source, the Phoenicians used ‘pagh’ for a half-ripe fig.
FILBERT: Apparently St. Philbert’s day, August 22 is a good time to expect hazelnuts to be ripe. German uses St Lambert’s day, September 17th to give hazelnuts the name ‘lambertsnuss’. Filbert comes to English through Anglo French late in the 14th century.
FIR: late 14th century from Old Norse ‘fyri-‘ related to the words that gave Old High German ‘foraha’ and possibly to a number of early Germanic words for mountain forests, like Middle High German ‘Virgunt’, Gothic ‘fairgunni’ and Old English ‘firgen.’
HAWTHORN: Old English ‘haga’ meant enclosure and related ‘hecg’ the source for our word ‘hedge’. ‘Thorn’ has many relatives in Germanic languages and its ultimate ancestor may also be the common ancestor for Sanskrit and Irish words for a blade of grass, ‘trnam’ and ‘trainin’.
HAZEL: Old English, ‘haesel’, old Germanic cousins include Old Norse ‘hasl’ but it’s roots may go back further, far enough to give Latin and Old Irish their terms for the tree, ‘corulus’ and ‘coll’.
HEMLOCK: Hemlock as a name for a tree was adopted in the 1670’s for a North American fir variety, apparently on the strength of its smell being thought of as similar to the poisonous herb infamous since ancient times in the Old World. The poisonous plant was known as ‘hemlic’ in Old English with ‘hymlice’ and ‘hymblice’ as earlier forms but with no cognates in related languages, in Greek the plant is called ‘koneion’.
HICKORY: a New World tree whose name comes to English from Algonquian in the 1670’s, a recorded term ‘pocohicora’ may be ancestral.
HOLLY: appears as a mid 12th century English word ‘holin’ and before that as ‘holegn’, many early Germanic variants including Old Norse ‘hulfr’, a number of Celtic words suggest an earlier antecedent, Middle Irish uses ‘cuilenn’ and Welsh has ‘celyn’ and Gaelic ‘cuilionn’.
IVY: Old English ‘ifig’ from a West Germanic root that gave us Dutch ‘eiloof’ and German ‘efeu’ as well.
JUNIPER: in the late 14th century we see ‘gynypre’ in English which will later be altered to conform more with the original Latin word ‘iuniperus’.
LARCH: the tree itself is native to the Alps and Latin may have gotten it’s word for the tree, ‘larix’ from a Gaulish word, it entered Old High German from Latin as ‘larihha’ and thence to German as larch, entering English in 1548.
LAUREL: c. 1300 English is using ‘lorrer’ from Old French ‘laurier’ which comes from Latin ‘laurus’ and may actually be directly related to Greek ‘daphne’.
LILAC: Appears in English in the 1590’s, as it did in French and Spanish at about the same time from Turkish ‘leylac’ from whence the bush was imported. Perhaps from an earlier Balkan name.
LOCUST: As a name for a tree this usage has been in English apparently only since the early 1600’s. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the Greek word for the insect ’akris’ was often applied to carob pods, because of their appearance or perhaps their use as a food of last resort. The word ‘locust’ comes from the same root as the word for ‘lobster’, the Latin term ‘locusta’.
MAPLE: around 1300 we first see ‘mapel’ derived from Old English - ’mapultreow’, related to similar words in Old Norse, Old Saxon, and ‘mapledorn’ in Old High German.
MEDLAR: Appears around 1300 as ‘medle’ from Old French ‘medler’ and ‘mesple’ from Latin ‘mespila’ and Greek before that as ‘mespilion’. Another Old English word for the fruit was ‘openaers’ - essentially it looked to them like an open arse.
MULBERRY: altered at the end of the 13th century from its more direct form ‘morberie’, mulberries and blackberries were known in Latin as ’morum’ and in Greek as ‘moron’ this word likely came from an even earlier form that gave Armenian ‘mor’ for blackberry and Welsh ‘merwydden’ for mulberry.
MYRTLE: Entered Middle English as ‘myrt’ as well as the diminuative form from Old French ‘mirtile’. The Latin ‘myrtus’ is quite close to the Greek ‘myrtos’ which would appear to be from the same Semitic source that gave us ‘myrrh’.
OAK: Appearing before 900, Old English ‘ac’ lead to Middle English ‘oke’. Numerous cognates are found in the Germanic languages - Old High German, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Middle Dutch, in Old Norse it is ‘eik’, but none outside of the Germanic Languages. [It seems quite likely that the earliest words that gave us ‘tree’ were primary ‘Proto’ Indo European words for oak, other hints of this term in English include: ‘druid’ - from Old Celtic, derwos, tree, often specifically the oak + wid, to see, to know - ‘oak-seer’. ‘Druid’ enters english from a Latin usage, via French in the 1560’s. A whole set of english words come from a Latin root-word meaning hard - ‘durus’ - endurance, duration, obdurate, duress, this ultimately may refer to the concept of an oak tree being hard, straight and steadfast.]
OLEANDER: Appears as ‘oleaster’ in the late 14th century, the Medieval Latin word was ‘oleander’ and is difficult to trace, seemingly the earlier ‘lorandrum’ was a muddled sense of it being like a laurel and also rhododendron, and then further confused with ‘olea’ a word for olive tree.
OLIVE: From Old French in around 1200, from Latin ‘oliva’ and Greek ‘elaia’.
OSIER: a species of willow, Old English ‘oser’ from Medieval Latin and Old French, ‘osera’ and ‘osier’ earlier than 1300.
PEACH: English, 1400’s, ‘peche’ and ‘peoche’ came from Old French ‘pesche’ via the Latin words for the fruit ‘malum Persicum’ translated directly from Greek, ‘Persikon malon’ - ‘Persian apple’.
PEAR: Old English uses ‘pere’ and even ‘peru’ with a number of West Germanic relatives from Vulgar Latin ‘pera’, ‘pira’ is plural for Latin ‘pirum’ possibly related to Greek ‘apios’ but not obvious.
PRIVET: The term enters English in the 1540’s earlier forms in English ’primet’ and ‘primprint’ don’t really help establish any antecedent.
PERSIMMON: 1610’s, American English from an Algonquian (Powhatan) term for dried fruit.
PLANE-TREE: Old French used plane and earlier ‘plasne’ for these trees in the 14th century, from Latin and Greek, platanus and platanistos, likely for its broad (platys) leaves. The sycamore maple is a ‘mock-plane’ and the term plane-tree was used for it since 1778.
PINE: from Old English ‘pin’ which extends pretty straightforwardly from Old French ‘pin’ back to Latin ‘pinus’.
PLUM: Old English had ‘plume’ from an early Germanic borrowing of Latin ‘prunum’ which had been borrowed from Greek ‘proumnon’ which likely came with the tree itself from Anatolia.
POMEGRANATE: ‘Poumgarnet’ appears in English around 1300, from Old French ‘pome grenate’ a direct translation from Latin ‘pomum granatum’ essentially an apple full of grains. It seems likely that pomegranate seeds influenced the Old French word that gave the gemstone ‘garnet’ its name.
POPLAR: mid 14th century, from Anglo French ‘popler, Old French got it from Latin ‘populus’ (with a long o, not the same populus that gives us of the people, popular.)
QUICKBEAM: from Old English ‘cwicbeam’, a name for the aspen with the idea that its leaves were particularly lively in a breeze, thus ‘quaking’ aspen.
QUINCE: Appears in the mid 1300’s as plural of an earlier ‘quoyn’ adapted from Old French ‘cooin’ which descends from Latin ‘cotoneum malum’ and Greek before that, ‘kydonion malon’ - literally apple of Kydonia a port city in Crete or possibly of Kytonion in Asia Minor.
RHODODENDRON: Enters English around 1600 from Greek via Latin and then French, it means quite literally rose-tree.
ROSE: Old English from Latin ‘rosa’ which also brought variations of the word into the Romance languages as well as German and Swedish, Polish and Russian, Irish and Welsh, Hungarian and Lithuanian… ultimately tracing back to the Greek word ‘rhodon’ which likely came from an older Iranian word.
SERVICE: Old English used ’syrfe’ as a form of Old French ’sorbe’ taking it from Latin ’sorbus’, English also adopted ’sorb’ as a word for the fruit of this tree, it’s possible that the Middle English plural ’serves’ was taken for the singular, leading to ‘serves’-tree and ‘serves’-berry.
SEQUOIA: 1847, this American conifer was named as a tribute to Sequoya the inventor of the Cherokee writing system.
SUMAC: a word for a red dyestuff made from one of these plants, it joins English around 1300, sometimes as ’sumach’, from Old French, ‘sumac’, and before that from Medieval Latin where it replicated Arabic ‘summaq’ from Syrian ’summaq’ meaning red.
SYCAMORE: a biblical hebrew word for shiqmah, mulberry, likely influenced Greek and Latin words for the ‘fig-mulberry’ (Gk: sykon + moron) and the word sicamour appears in Old French by the mid 14th century. In the 1580’s English is using the term for the plane tree.
ROWAN: ‘rountree’ is attested to by the 1540’s in Northern England from Scandinavian origins, Old Norse used ‘reynir’. The term likely leads back to words for its ruddy red berries.
TAMARACK: North American black larch from Algonquian, 1805, an earlier name in American English appears in 1792, hackmatack from an Abenacki word.
WALNUT: from Old English ‘walhnutu’, numerous other old Germanic relatives including Old Norse ‘valhnot’. 'Wealh' indicated foreign, the hazel nut was considered native while walnuts were exotic, in Late Latin it was ‘nux Gallica’.
WILLOW: Old English ‘welig’, with some Germanic relatives in Old Saxxon ‘wilgia’ and Middle Dutch ‘wilghe.’ Some sense of the word meaning curvy, and related ultimately to origins for the Greek and Latin terms that gave us helix and revolve.
YEW: Old English ‘iw’ and ‘eow’ from a family of old Germanic words including Old Norse, ‘yr’. The theory is that French, Spanish and Medieval Latin words (if, iva & ivus respectively) are from either Germanic origins or a possible Gaulish word.
I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t add:
TREE: treo and treow in Old English, with many cousins in the Germanic languages, including Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Gothic, the word is ‘tre’ in Old Norse.
DECIDUOUS: 1680’s from Latin, meaning that which falls off or descends - ‘deciduus’ - de+cadere.
CONIFER: 1847, from Latin, ‘conus’ + ‘ferre’ - cone-bearing.
BRANCH: Enters English around 1300 from Old French ‘branche’ which came from Late Latin ‘branca’ where it appears to have been a recent borrowing perhaps from Gaulish meaning at first a footprint, the shape of an animal’s claw or paw, this makes better sense when one considers the shape of a geneological ‘pedigree’, a family tree with it’s branches looked like the foot of a crane and the Old French term ‘pied de gru’ - crane’s foot - became the word pedigree in English.
LEAF: All manner of West Germanic cousins, Old Saxon has ‘lof’, Old Norse has ‘lauf’ Old Frisian has ‘laf’ and a number of others, German, Dutch, Gothic.
TWIG: the term that gave Old English ’twig’ must have been a basic object lesson of one branching into two, split in ’twain’ or ’two’, and we can see that in German a twig - ‘zweig’ - similarly illustrates one becoming ‘zwei’; words for two are remarkably similar throughout the length and breadth of Indo European languages.
TRUNK: the word entered English from Old French ‘tronc’ in the mid 15th century, where it had gained the sense of a ‘ large box or case’ that was not in the original Latin word ‘truncus’ which meant the main body of a tree, or of a human being.
Here’s a list of terms generally referring to woodlands and vegetation en masse.
BRIAR: Old English brer and braer with no obvious antecedants.
BRAMBLE: Old English ‘braembel’ and braemel, blackberries were called bremelberies and even bremelaeppel in Old English.
BRUSH: in the sense of brushwood, shrubbery, mid 14th century from Anglo-French ‘bruce’ and North French ‘broche’ 12century Old French ‘broce’ and earlier ‘Gallo-Roman ‘brocia’.
COPSE: 1570’s related to ‘coppice’ which descends from 14th century ‘coppes’. The sense that a small thicket would be ‘cut over’ for fuel lead to earlier Old French ‘coupeiz’ from Vulgar Latin ‘colpaticium’.
GROVE: Old English ‘graf’ related to another Old English word for a thicket, ‘graeafa’, but with no other hints as to where it might have come from.
FOREST: late 13th century from Old French ‘forest’. Appears to come from the Latin word ‘foris’ a word indicating that something is on the outside, which gives us the word ‘foreign’, in Medieval Latin the idea was that the ‘forestem silvam’ was wooded land outside of the confines of the king’s wood, outside of the parklands reserved for the royal hunt.
PARK: mid 13th century from Old French ‘parc’ (12th century) with the sense of a game preserve. Likely from a much earlier West Germanic word that had more to do with the fencing than the land enclosed that gave Medieval Latin the term ‘parricus’, the antecedent to the Old French word.
THICKET: in late Old English ‘thiccet’ from ‘thicce’ for thick, a word with many contemporary Germanic variants including Old Frisian ‘thikke’.
WOOD: Old English ‘wudu’ and ‘widu’ meant tree as well as collectively a forest and also the material which trees consist of. Other Old Germanic languages yield similar words including Old Norse, ‘viðr’, and a likely even older word was ancestral to Celtic variants: Welsh ‘gwydd’, Gaelic ‘fiodh-‘ and Old Irish ‘fid’.
And here is a somewhat loose selection of forestry products —
ACORN: Aecern refered to mast, the nuts of trees, and the word was similar in many Germanic languages, Dutch, Gothic, Low German, Old Norse used ‘akarn’. It only slowly became restricted to oak nuts, which were the most important forest crop for feeding pigs, possibly influenced by the folk association with ‘ac’ (oak) + corn.
APPLE: early 1300’s, aeppel in Old English refered to any kind of a fruit generally, dates were called ‘fingeraeppla’ and cucumbers were ‘eorthaeppla’. Most early Germanic languages record cognates, Gaulish used ‘avallo’ for fruit and Old Irish used ‘ubull’.
BALSAM: As a word for tree resin used as a healing balm ‘balsam’ appears in the 1570’s, the Latin word ‘balsamum’ is used even earlier in Middle English. The Latin word and the Greek ‘balsamon’ are from Hebrew ‘basam’ and Aramaic ‘busma’ for ‘spice’.
BARK: 13th century, likely Scandinavian addition, related to Old Norse ‘borkr’ and may be related to the Germanic words that give us birch.
BEAM: originally meant a living tree in Old English and its relations are found in Old Frisian, bam, and Middle Dutch, boom, and is related to the word still used in modern German - ‘baum’.
BERRY: Old English berie used for berries and also grapes, numerous Germanic cousins including Old Norse ‘ber,’ and Old Saxon used ‘winberi’ for grape.
DRUPE: 1753 from drupa in Modern Latin indicating a stone-fruit, coming from Latin and Greek words for olives, as ‘dryppa’ (Gk) - tree ripened olives, drys (tree) + pepon (ripe).
GUM: from Old French c. 1300, ancestral Latin got ‘gumma’ and ‘gummi’ from Egyptian ‘kemai’ for hardened tree-sap resin.
MAST: As a term for forest nuts eaten by swine, Old English uses ‘maest’ and a number of other Germanic languages used ‘mast’. Old English also had a verb ‘maesten’ to fatten, to feed.
NUT: ‘note’ in Middle English, ‘hnutu’ in Old English, numerous old Germanic relatives and descended from a similar ancestor from Latin ‘nux’ from which we get ‘nucleus’.
SLOE: Old English ’slah’ has cognates in other Germanic languages like ’sleeu’ in Middle Dutch. Some linguists see the words linked to an older group of Indo European words denoting bluish-black things, Russian uses ‘sliva’ and Lithuanian uses ‘slyvas’ for plums.
TIMBER: in Old English this word starting out denoting a structure made of wood, a building and later came to mean the material, similar words are found in Old Frisian and Old Saxon, in German ‘zimmern’ still has the sense of ’to build’, Zimmerman as a surname indicating a carpenter.
TURPENTINE: early 14th century, a word that became generally a term for liquid resins, originally from the terebinth, a member of the sumac family, from Old French ‘therebinte’ had from Latin and earlier Greek, ‘terminthos’ likely from an even earlier non-Indo European source.
WORMWOOD: Old English ‘wermod’ did not refer either to worms or wood although its not clear where the original term came from, the family of Germanic words for this aromatic herb include Old Saxon ‘wermoda’ and modern German ‘wermut’ - from which (through French) the white wine flavored with this herb came down to us as Vermouth. The Star which brings bitter sorrow in the New Testament is ‘Apsinthion’ which indicates the same plant and of course wormwood was also used to flavor the liqueur known as absinthe.