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.

U-T Columns

Happy Earth Day to all of you this Monday, April 22. In 1970, the first Earth Day began a “grassroots” effort to recognize each year the fragility of the imperiled planet we are all riding.

We were once a nation of farmers, but by the turn of the 20th 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 Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins lamented how the Industrial Age has ravaged 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 have forgotten 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 agriculture from which grow so much of our speech and our writing, our thoughts and our dreaming.

Our fertile English language is cultivated by 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, cut and dried, to mow down, separate the wheat from the chaff, to cut a wide swath, the grass is always greener on the other side and a needle in a haystack.

But most of us have lost contact with the down-to-earth figures of speech planted in our language. Take the word broadcast, which first meant “to broadly cast seed on the ground by hand” and in 1922 took on the modern media use with the growth of radio.

Let us now unearth 10 more agricultural words and phrases:

  • The lines in a worried forehead resemble the grooves in the earth made by a plow. We describe such a forehead as furrowed.
  • Like well-farmed land, the fertile minds of those who read this column are carefully tended and yield a bountiful harvest. We say that such people are cultivated.
  • A harrow is a cultivating farm implement set with spikes or spring teeth that pulverize the earth by violently tearing and flipping over the topsoil. That’s why we identify an emotionally lacerating experience as harrowing.
  • European peasants, forbidden to cut down or pick 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 word that describes an unexpected stroke of good luck: a windfall.
  • Rooted in the Latin de-, “from,” and lira, “furrow,” is a word that metaphorically compares behavior that deviates from a straight course to the action of swerving from the conventional path in plowing: delirious.
  • In bygone days, the Old English math meant “mowing.” Nowadays a word that means “results, effects or consequences” is an aftermath.
  • The arduous job of hoeing long rows in uncooperative terrain gives us a hard (or tough) row to hoe, an American expression that means “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 “nip it in the 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 make hay while the sun shines.
  • 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.