Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

I recently had the great pleasure of addressing members of the University of California Master Gardeners of San Diego County. One of the least-known treasure troves of information in our vast neighborhood is that more than 300 Master Gardeners freely provide home gardening and pest control information throughout the county. These land-lovers also encourage and assist teachers in starting and maintaining hundreds of gardens at their schools.

We were once a nation of farmers, but by the turn of the century most of us had moved to towns and cities. Today only two percent of Americans live on farms, and we have lost touch with our agricultural roots. In “God’s Grandeur” (1877), the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins lamented the effects of the Industrial Age on our feeling for the land:              

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Because our shod (shoed) feet no longer touch the soil, most Americans are unaware of the metaphors that spring from the earth and those who work it. These verbal seeds lie buried so deeply in the humus of our language that we are hardly aware that they are figures of speech at all. Let’s do some digging to uncover the rich, earthy metaphors from which grow so much of our speech and our writing, our thoughts and our dreaming.

We may be aware of the agricultural comparisons in expressions like cream of the crop, to crop up, to feel one’s oats, to farm out, a farm team, to weed out, to plow into, a vintage year, a grass roots campaign, a budding movie star, easy pickings, gone to seed, seedy, to reap the benefits, a grassroots effort, cut and dried, to mow down, separate the wheat from the chaff, to cut a wide swath and a needle in a haystack.

But most city dwellers have lost contact with the down-to-earth figures of speech embedded in our language. Take the adjective harrowing: A harrow is a cultivating farm implement set with spikes or spring teeth that pulverizes the earth by violently tearing and flipping over the topsoil. That’s why we identify an emotionally lacerating experience as harrowing. Harrowing is one of a crop of down-to-earth metaphors that stimulate the fertile minds of the cultivated men and women who read this column:

  • The lines in a worried forehead resemble the grooves in the earth made by a plow. We describe such a forehead as furrowed.
  • Broadcast originally meant “to scatter seed.” Now the verb has become an agricultural metaphor that means “to spread the word over various media.”
  • Anyone who has ever tried to use tightly stretched wire to bind bales of hay knows how inefficient and ornery the stuff can be. When someone or something behaves in an uncontrolled manner, we say that he, she, or it goes haywire.
  • A custom in medieval England allowed peasants to collect from royal forests whatever deadwood they could pull down with a shepherd’s crook or cut with a reapers billhook. By extension, by hook or by crook has come to signify by whatever means.
  • European peasants, forbidden to cut down or pick fruit from trees, were allowed to gather gratuitous fuel and food blown down by acts of nature, a bounty that required little effort on the part of the lucky recipients. By extension, we today use a windfall to describe an unexpected stroke of good luck.
  • The arduous job of hoeing long rows in uncooperative terrain makes for a tough row to hoe, that is, “a difficult task.”
  • Late spring frosts or pests of the insect or human variety can kill an aborning tree or flower before it has a chance to develop. When we terminate a project in its early stages, we say that we nip it in the bud (not butt).
  • Hay is made by setting mown grass out in the sun to dry. When we want to make the most of an opportunity, we try to make hay while the sun shines.
  • Aftermath hails from a 15th-century compound after mowth, meaning “the second harvest of hay cut each summer.” Nowadays an aftermath is “a result or consequences.”