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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.