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Don't Get Stumped: The Nitty Gritty Language of Trees

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: Trees, Language, Words,

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgThe first week of December; winter is settling in, and all the trees are bare ... except for one large pear tree in my neighborhood. Long after all the other trees’ leaves had fallen and been raked to the curb, this one still had a full crown of them, refusing to let go. It held fast to its autumn colors even as a heavy, sideways snow blew in off Lake Michigan, covering the ground with a couple of inches. Bedecked in green, red, and gold, it seemed to be decorated for Christmas, especially with the wooden sleigh and eight tiny reindeer the tree’s owner had placed under it. I half expected to see a partridge sitting atop of its highest branch. Rounding the corner each morning, I’d think this would be the day I’d see the tree had finally dropped its leaves. But there they remained, the tree just as full as it was the day before. Why had this one tree chosen to ignore the change of seasons? A micro-climate? The species? The cultivar?

Bradford pear with leaves in December

“I am stumped,” I said aloud to no one but the tree.

Why “stumped”? Why not baffled, befuddled, confused, puzzled, perplexed, or even mystified? The answer is rooted in the tree itself. The word “stump” when used to mean “perplexed” originated during the pioneering days. As land was cleared for the railroads, tree stumps in the path of the tracks meant a dilemma for the workers; time spent trying to dig them out caused them “to be stumped.” Even more unlikely words such as “true,” “book,” “writing” and “snag” are all one way or another, derived from trees.

Is it any wonder “stump” and many other words and adages pertaining to trees crept into common language usage? From the ancient forest dwellers to our country’s pioneers, trees offered the food, shelter, and medicines people needed in order to survive. Today, we still rely on trees for the natural resources they provide, their aesthetic beauty, and, through scientific knowledge our earliest ancestors did not have, we know that trees have the ability to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, stabilize the climate, fertilize the soil, and prevent erosion. In essence, we owe our lives to trees.

Through appreciation came admiration and reverence, not only because it provides resources, but for the quiet majestic beauty that is a tree. It’s from this reverence that trees found their way into rituals and religions of cultures the world over. The World Tree, the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge are mythical trees which symbolize the pillar of the world, the cradle of the human race, and the link to the heavens. Even the tradition of the Christmas tree has its origins in the belief that trees are sacred. It was the ancient belief of some European cultures that because evergreens did not “die” in winter, they harbored spirits of unfailing life, and during the winter solstice, gifts were placed under the tree as offerings to the evergreen tree spirit for the renewal of life and fertility come spring.

Ever “knock on wood” to keep the good luck coming and avoid the bad? This common symbolic gesture of luck is thought to be derived from ancient ideas that wood spirits live within the trees. It was considered not only polite, but good luck to tap the trees to let the spirits know you were in their presence, a practice that still persists in parts of Ireland today.

We all have Family Trees. Like father, like son; like mother, like daughter … “the apple never falls far from the tree.” Variations of this saying seem to first appear in Germany, though it made its way to America in a slightly different form when Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in a letter in 1839, “the apple never falls far from the stem,” used not as a reference to family traits, but to describe the nostalgia that often brings us back to the place we spent our childhood.

And hasn’t everyone at least once heard during their childhood that “money doesn’t grow on trees”? Sometimes, it’s a shame parents always seem to be right. I don’t think I’m “going out on a limb” by saying it’d be nice to run out to the family money tree in the backyard and reap the harvest of fresh, ripe dollar bills. Ah, to have it “made in the shade.”

Today, “barking up the wrong tree,” doesn’t have the same meaning it did back in the 1800s, when the phrase originated from raccoon hunting. The saying, meaning to make a mistake or wrong turn, is of U.S. origin from the 1830s. Hunting dogs picking up a false scent would mistakenly call the hunter to “the wrong tree” – one without a raccoon in it.

One can imagine the adage “the bigger they are the harder they fall” as being derived from the idea that “the bigger the tree, the harder she falls.” A Chinese proverb tells us that “the higher the tree, the stronger the wind,” while J. Willard Marriott said, “the stronger the wind, the stronger the trees.” The tall, strong, venerable oak is perhaps the most magical and sacred of trees in many cultures. “Every majestic oak tree was once a nut which stood its ground”; “steadfast as an oak”; “mighty oaks from little acorns grow”; and “little strokes fell great oaks” – how dull our language would be if not for trees!

Without them, we could not offer an olive branch as a token of peace. There’d be no “your neck of the woods” or mine neither. Falling off a tall building is not nearly as “easy as falling off a log.” And “out of the clear, bright meadow” doesn’t quite bring the same relief as making it “out of the woods.” We have trees to thank for allowing us to say such profound things like “he can’t see the forest for its trees,” “a tree is known for its fruit, not its leaves,” and “shaking like a leaf on a tree.”

Next time you rest under the shade of a tree, admire its beauty, and breathe in the clean air it offers freely, why not also give thanks to a language as colorful as leaves in autumn. If this all seems a little bit nutty, perhaps I can blame it on my roots – while some have Family Trees full of good apples, mine is full of nuts. And you know what they say … “the acorn never falls too far from the tree.”

And with that, it’s time for me to make like a tree and leave.

cindy murphy
12/30/2009 10:55:54 AM

Hi, Dave. I agree - it's amazing what trees give us; things that, as you said, "brighten our lives". Sometimes though, we take it all for granted. I read an interesting blurb of early American history yesterday... In the new country where it seemed settlers were clear-cutting forests at an alarming rate, William Penn specified that for every five acres of forest cleared, one acre would be kept intact, (in fact, the "sylan" in Pennsylania means abounding in woods and trees). But in the late 1700's the city of Philadelphia gave home owners six months to clear their properties of trees, stating they were a fire hazard, and obstructed views. The trees spoke out. Their spokes-tree, one of the wooden posts in the city's assembly voiced its opinion in a pamphlet titled "The Post's Oration", (written by Francis Hopkinson), citing as a "standing member" of the House, it was its right to be heard. And it was; the Post tree suggested a compromise that only the trees in the way of traffic would be removed; the proposal to cut down all the trees was consequently reversed. Regarding phenology - I first learned the word a couple of years ago right here in Grit magazine. Just type "phenology" in the search portion of this website to read a few interesting articles on the subject! "One impulse from a vernal wood Could teach him more of Man Or moral evil and of good Than all the sages can." ~ William Wordsworth

nebraska dave
12/29/2009 12:26:59 PM

Cindy, I think you pretty much covered the whole gambit of tree quoteoloy. There I go again playing with words. The only one I can think of pertains to the lover’s heart pining away for the love of his/her life. Trees are really amazing though as they give us so many things to brighten our lives. We build houses with wood; we make furniture from wood; we line our walls and floors in our houses with wood; we burn it in our fire places to stay warm; we erect poles to carry electrical lines; we make posts to build fences; and my favorite is to build raised garden beds. Trees provide food through all kinds of fruits and nuts. Here in sparsely treed Nebraska many farmers have learned the importance to have planted tree wind breaks to protect farm buildings. I discovered a new gardening word. It’s called Phenology, the practice of harvesting or planting by actions of other growing plants. Stay warm. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson ~

cindy murphy
12/29/2009 7:26:01 AM

Thanks Paul and Michelle. Yep, ya gotta love those trees...afterall, our 'roots' go way back to the forest-dwellers. Yes, Vickie - the leaves of the pear tree turned brown and shriveled, and fell just after mid-December. And you're right - my mom telling us when we were kids that 'money didn't grow on trees' caused us to roll our eyes - just as my daughters' eyes roll when I now tell them the same thing. Too bad "cash crop" doesn't actually refer to a crop of cash.

michelle house
12/28/2009 9:24:36 PM

Good article as always, your way with words is an wonderful thing. Michelle

12/28/2009 8:02:36 PM

Cindy, So funny -has it lost it's leaves yet? You know we always heard growing up money doesn't grow on trees and now we say it! vickie

paul gardener
12/28/2009 5:28:09 PM

Great post. Love them trees!! P~