Thursday, December 15, 2022

Language Of Confusion: Trees, Again

It’s the last real etymology post of the year and I’m out of ideas. So we’re looking at more trees.
Sycamore showed up in the mid fourteenth century as sicamour, coming from the Old French sicamor/sagremore. That’s from the classical Latin word for the tree, and they of course stole it from the Greek sykomoros. It’s actually a mix of sykon, fig, and moron, which, first of all, that’s hilarious, but it actually means mulberry and refers to the genus of the mulberry tree. Which, you know, is not a sycamore. A sycamore is a “fig mulberry”. Despite being neither of those things. Okay, this one was just stupid.
More seasonally appropriate, the name spruce showed up in the mid seventeenth century, though before that it was spelled spruse, and apparently it was a word for things brought over from Prussia. Yeah, originally it was Pruce, short for Prussia, and referred to lots of different things imported from Prussia, like beer, leather, and wood. The tree was thought to be unique to Prussia, and the name for the tree stuck. There’s also to spruce, as is to spruce something up, and that shockingly is related. Kind of. Like I said, spruce referred to a lot of different things, including leather, and that spruce leather was used to make a type of jacket that was considered fashionable in the fifteenth century, so by the sixteenth century, prior to the word for the tree, sprucing something up was in the English lexicon.
You’d think this tree would be related to burning things—I mean, wood burns!—but you’d be wrong. Ash as in tree comes from the Old English aesc, which is similar to but distinct from aesce, their word for burned ashes. Both are from Proto Germanic, but the tree is askaz/askiz, from the Proto Indo European root os-, which means ash tree, while the other one is from the Proto Germanic askon, from the PIE root as-, to burn or glow. So yeah. Another word pair of homonyms that have nothing to do with each other, and have sounded similar all through their existences.
Aspen showed up in the late fourteenth century from the Old English aespe, aspen. It’s from the Proto Germanic aspo, from the Proto Indo European aps-, which also meant the tree. After the last bunch, this one is disappointingly mundane.

Well, hopefully this one is more interesting. Birch comes from the Old English berc/beorc, from the Proto Germanic berkjon. That’s from the Proto Indo European bhergo, from the root bhereg-, to shine, bright, or white, and the birch is named that because of its white bark. Not really more interesting, I’m afraid.
Online Etymology Dictionary
Google Translate
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Some more straight forward than others.

  2. Sycamore was the rival jr. high school, so calling them morons strikes me as a whole other kind of funny. (Our 12-year-old brains only thought of calling them sick.)


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