Saturday, 16 April 2016

Word Obsessive

This is certainly a post for writers.
       Editing and rewriting puts you in a different mind-set to plain, straight-ahead writing.
       I'm editing and rewriting a lot lately. I've been rewriting the Sterkarm books, for republication this summer, and I've been rewriting a WIP progress with the working title of Bad Girl.

     Rewriting always seems to make me pernickety about words.

     While I'm bashing along on first drafts, thinking only of working out the plot and motivation, I don't bother much about the words. Just slam them down.

      But when I'm rewriting, it all slows down. I become a bit obsessive. I think: would that character use that word?
      Would this word even exist in English at this time?
      Would they use that form of the word? Is it in character: would they use a slangier term, something more official, something politer - or ruder?
      While rewriting, I seem to pick up the dictionary every ten minutes. I'm always worrying about exact meanings, origins, tone, colour...

       A couple of years ago, while in rewriting mode, I crossed the Forth Bridge into the Kingdom of Fife (with my laptop in my luggage.) The Forth Bridge crosses the Firth of Forth; and on the other side of Scotland, there's the Solway Firth. Further north are the Cromarty and Moray Firths. I started idly wondering about this word, 'Firth.' Why, I wondered, does Scotland have firths where England
Aerial view of Forth Bridge, courtesy of Google.
has channels and sounds?

         A firth is a long, narrow inlet of the sea. Which is exactly what a fjord is - hang on!
        Scots English is even more heavily influenced by Scandinavia, and has retained more of the Anglo-Saxon than 'Standard' English, or the English further south. Could there be a connection?

        In 'fjord,' the 'j' is sounded like a 'y' or 'i' while that final 'd' sounds more like 'th.'
        In other words - and say this with a Scots accent -  'F-yuh-rrrrr-th.'
        Firth and fjord, I thought: they're the same word! I think there are few people in the world who could be as excited as me by this. Some very junior lexicographers, perhaps. A few very naive linguists. And maybe some other writers (though, in their case, not necessarily about 'firth' and 'fjord.')
       I grabbed my OED as soon as I could:

                    FIRTH, n. a narrow inlet of the sea. ORIGIN ME (orig. Scots), from ON fjorthr (see FJORD)

          Oh, I was very happy. The identity of 'firth' and 'fjord' is obviously a well-known fact in the dictionary-compiling community, but it had never occurred to me before, and I doubt if I would have made the connection if I hadn't been obsessing about the sounds of words and their origins, in rewrite mode.

         The present bout of rewriting brought on another of these connections. I was reading something by an American, which spoke of mowing the grass in their yard.

        Now, to me, 'yard' has always meant an area of hard paving or concrete, usually quite small. So the area of hard paving just outside my back-door is my 'yard.' Some of my older relatives lived in yards. An alleyway led from the street into a small square surrounded by small houses. At the centre of the square were blocks of shared lavatories and wash-houses. All of the square was paved. It was a 'yard.' These placed were often named 'Something Yard.'
          So, for years, when I was younger, I imagined American streets and towns as places quite without flowerbeds or lawns - because they themselves always talked of their yards.

         My mother loved flowers. She had lots of roses, lilies, magnolia and anything else she could persuade to grow. The place where they grew was 'the garden.' The garden was on the other side of the small paved 'yard.' She was happy for us to play 'on the yard.' She was not happy when we gambolled in her garden and broke down favorite plants.
         At my own house, the 'garden' begins immediately on the other side of the 'yard.'

          As I grew older, it slowly dawned on me that when Americans said, 'yard,' they might, just might, be talking about a place where they grew flowers, bushes and trees.
          Because my brain's is rewrite mode, and is scrambling restively about among meanings and nuances of words, a casual reference started it off on: Why do Americans say 'yard' where we say 'garden'? And it suddenly dawned on me that, just like firth and fjord, they're the same word.

       I was rewriting the Sterkarms, which is set among the pele towers of the Scottish Borders during the 16th Century. A pele tower had a great thick wooden door. But wooden doors could be hacked or
A raid on Gilknockie Tower
burned down, so behind it there was a door-sized iron grille, hinged so it could be fastened across the doorway. Even if enemies succeeded in breaking through the door, they would still have to get past the iron grille, which wouldn't give way to axes or fire so easily.
        The technical name, among archaeologists and historians, for one of these grilles is 'a yett.' It's called that because, in the dialect of the Borders, the letter 'g' is often pronounced as 'y', as it often is in Scandinavian languages. 'Yett' is the same word as 'gate,' but with a different pronunciation.
       So, I thought, 'garden' may once have been pronounced as 'yarden.'

       And that 'd' in the middle of both words? Pronounce it as 'th', as in fjorth, and you have 'garth' or 'garthen.' Or even 'yarthen.' I supposed that the 'en' at the end either meant 'small' as in 'kitten' or, possibly, it was 'the'. In Scandinavian languages, the definite article is added to the end of a word. So, in Norwegian, 'book' is 'bok' - 'the book' is 'boken.'

         Then there's the word, 'garth.'

                   garth, n Brit. 1 an open space surrounded by cloisters. 2 a yard or garden.

       In Norse Myth, there is Midgarth(d) and Asgarth(d). Midgarth is often translated as 'earth' - Middle Earth, or here, this place where we all live. It's the open space, yard or garden where mankind lives. It's in the middle, because there are worlds above and beneath it.
       Asgarth is the open space, yard or garden where the Aesir or gods live.

       So 'garden' was once 'yarthen' or 'yarth' - which comes very close to 'earth.'  ('Earth' is derived from the name of the Norse mother goddess Jord or Yorth.)

       One more dive into the dictionary.

          yard, n 1 chiefly British a piece of uncultivated ground adjoining a building, typically enclosed by walls. 2 N. America the garden of a house.   ORIGIN OE geard 'building, home, region' from a Gmc base rel. to GARDEN and ORCHARD.

           There, at the end of 'orchard' is that 'yarth' again. (And 'orchard' proves to be one of those odd, doubled words. The first syllable comes from the Latin hortus, meaning 'garden.'  So orchard means 'garden-garden.' Or, I suppose, 'garden-area.')

           garden, n, chiefly British, a piece of ground adjoining a house used for growing fruit, flowers or vegetables. ORIGIN ME from Old North Fr. gardin, var. of OFr jardin, of Gmc origin, rel to yard.

          Don't let those Old North Fr. fool you - they were Vikings.

          So now I know why Americans say 'yard' while we Brits say 'garden.' As so often, the American are using a somewhat older version of the word or phrase.

          That's a relief. I can stop worrying about it now.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, I love word origins and connections! It's fun to work them out as you go, isn't it?

Susan Price said...

It is indeed! What word do you use in Australia - yard or garden?

Katherine Roberts said...

'Yard' always puzzled me too, now it makes perfect sense! But the Americanism that puzzles me most is 'barrette' for hair slide/clip... sounds French?

Joan Lennon said...

Good sleuthing, Sue! (Also, it appears, from Old Norse)

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Fascinating post and good to know somebody else gets as excited about stuff like this as I do. By the way - in this part of Scotland, people often call their back garden their 'back door' - which used to lead to a bit of confusion when people would remark that we had 'a big back door'. The actual back door, the one made of wood, is quite small. But the OTHER back door is pretty big!

Penny Dolan said...

Really enjoyed your word-hounding and listening out for the old echoes in the words.

Susan Price said...

Thanks all! Catherine, I've never heard of a garden being called a back door before! I shall have to ask the nearest Scot what he thinks about it - though he comes from Fife in the East rather than the West.