A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (86)?…


Neck of the woods

Our language is wonderfully idiomatic and we use words and phrases without giving much thought as to their derivation. Take neck of the woods, for example, a phrase we use to indicate a certain place or neighbourhood, usually associated with the speaker or writer.

The earliest usage of the word neck I have found in print was in John Lowthrop’s Philosophical Transactions and Collections 414 of 1705, “that part which is now standing is part of the End of that Neck of Land which runs into the Sea”.  It would seem that neck was used in this context to denote a strip of land, perhaps analogous to the human neck which is narrow in comparison with the head and trunk.

It was not until 1780 that neck was used to describe woods. A Young in his Tour of Ireland wrote, “You see three other necks of wood…generally giving a deep shade”. By 1871 it had not only assumed its figurative sense of neighbourhood or place but also had become to be regarded as an Americanism as M Schele de Vere showed in his Americanisms, “He will…find his neighbourhood designated as a neck of the woods, that being the name applied to any settlement made in the well-wooded parts of the South West especially”. Perhaps, the early American settlers who had the daunting task of naming, or perhaps we should say renaming, a new continent for a bit of variety used an archaic English word to add a bit of variety to their range of sobriquets.

Bill Bryson in his book Made in America has an alternate origin; that it came from the Algonquian word naiack which meant point or corner. The settlers took their land so they may as well appropriate their language. There is some attraction in the theory, particularly as the use of neck as a geographic descriptor, at least in literary form, only dates back to the 18th century, long after the colonisation of the Americas started. But the late usage of neck in literature doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t used in everyday language well before then. Another option is that it comes from the German for my neck, meine ecke. I am less sold on that one.

The problem with etymology is that you can easily bark up the wrong tree, a phrase we use to indicate the making of a mistake or a false assumption. The allusion is simple enough; hunting docks having chased their quarry up a tree surround the wrong one, yapping. It first appeared in literature in its figurative sense in James Kirke Paulding’s Westward Ho! Published in 1832, “ I thought I’d set him barking up the wrong tree a little and I told him stories…

Taking a wrong step and things can go haywire, meaning go wrong or, perhaps, become deranged. Thin, light wire was used in baling machines to bale up hay. At the turn of the 20th century the pejorative term a haywire outfit was used to describe those who patched up machines with wire or, as we might say, made a bodged job of it. The US Forestry Bureau Bulletin of 1905 defined a hay wire outfit as a contemptuous term for loggers with poor logging equipment. By 1920 haywire was defined in volume 82 of Dialect Notes as “gone wrong or no good. Slang”.

So now we know!


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