Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Necks, Woods and and More


Byter Sue sent me an email saying that she was discussing something with a friend when the expression “your neck of the woods” came up.  She wondered how the expression came about and asked if I could look into it.

Some comments...

The following is from:

In the country, there aren't any street addresses. So you literally use landmarks to refer to where a person lives. Up in your neck of the woods or up the holler. On the mountain. Down on the river.

"Neck of the woods," meaning a certain region or neighborhood, is one of those phrases we hear so often that we never consider how fundamentally weird they are. In the case of "neck," we have one of a number of terms invented by the colonists in Early America to describe the geographical features of their new home. There was, apparently, a conscious attempt made to depart from the style of place names used in England for thousands of years in favor of new "American" names. So in place of "moor," "heath," "dell," "fen" and other such Old World terms, the colonists came up with "branch," "fork," "hollow," "gap," "flat" and other descriptive terms used both as simple nouns ("We're heading down to the hollow") and parts of proper place names ("Jones Hollow").

"Neck" had been used in English since around 1555 to describe a narrow strip of land, usually surrounded by water, based on its resemblance to the neck of an animal. But the Americans were the first to apply "neck" to a narrow stand of woods or, more importantly, to a settlement located in a particular part of the woods. In a country then largely covered by forests, your "neck of the woods" was your home, the first American neighborhood

This is an example of a "fossil" word in which an old word has been preserved in only one or two special sayings. Short Shrift is one example. In the case of Neck the ancestor words in Old Breton (cnoch) and Old German (hnack) both had a sense of "hill" or "summit"; ie identifying a place.

And speaking of necks...

Pain in the neck, meaning an annoying or troublesome person,  is first recorded in print in 1924 but is a euphemism for the original expression, pain in the arse (or, for the benefit of overseas readers, pain in the ass, though for us that is a donkey).

On the topic of asses, here is someone’s bit of humour:  a pane in the ass . . .

“Everyone has an invisible sign hanging from their neck saying, 'Make me feel important.' Never forget this message when working with people.

-          Mary Ash

The expression “babes in the wood”, meaning inexperienced innocents entering unawares into a potentially dangerous situation, comes from a 16th century English story called Babes in the Wood.  It tells of a greedy uncle who tries to steal the inheritance of his deceased brother’s children, leaving them in the woods where they die and are covered with leaves by robins.

From Randolph Caldecott;s 1879 book Babes in the Wood


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