Notes on Word Origins


Perhaps there is no other material of such universal application for constructive, decorative, and an endless variety of other purposes, as “Wood”; or that affords occupation to so large a number of persons.

Life, with the major portion of my readers, is too short for a full and exhaustive study of wood in its living state as a tree, or in its dead state as timber; the one embracing Botany and Arboriculture, and the other general construction, in which latter the architect, the civil engineer; the clerk of works, the timber convertor, and the builder play an important part.

It follows, therefore, that a little knowledge of these matters, however dangerous it may be, is comparatively all that falls to the lot of the followers of the above professions; this, in its turn, must needs be acquired as opportunity offers; not by reading through innumerable tomes dealing with the subject—time will not permit of this,—but by practical “tit-bits,” so to speak, which can be served up with our ordinary food. It is to fall in with the necessities of our everyday life that I pen these notes in abstract form, leaving my readers to fill in the voids, where necessary, from other sources.

You will notice in the above that I make a distinction between Wood And Timber. These terms formerly had different meanings to those of modern times, “Wood” in a collective sense then—as to-day—implied a forest; it also meant the stem of a tree in a living-or dead state, more particularly the latter, hence the ancient timber merchant was called a “Woodmonger,” and the worker in wood a “Wright,” but as this term originally meant a general worker, it became more clearly defined as follows: Wain (wagon) Wright,—Cartwright,— Wheelwright,—Plow-wright,—Ark (chest) wright (the primitive cabinet maker) and Tree Wright (the house-builder).

Timber, in its primitive form, was the material of construction, the word “timber” being the equivalent in meaning of “building.” This arose from the fact of our Teutonic ancestors conducting their building operations exclusively in wood; thus a house built of wood was “timbered in tree,” and although it appears extremely strange to us, it is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon chronicles of the rebuilding of the cathedral at York in a more durable form, that it was “timbered in stone,” i.e. “built in stone.”

The joiner was an intelligible term arising out of the calling of a “treewright;” he was the man who joined pieces of wood together to form the walls of houses, a term overlaid by the Norman or French “carpenter.” The rearing of the framework of these primitive houses was an important event, marked by a feast to the workmen employed, a custom from which the “rearing supper” of to-day, now confined to the roof alone, is the lineal descendant.

Timber, as now understood, is a standing tree suitable for conversion into a material for building purposes; it also applies to the trunks of trees in a felled or converted form.

The woodmonger of old became the raff-merchant of later times. It is not clear how the initial syllable in “riff-raff” became the equivalent for converted wood, a phrase conveyed to America by early emigrants from our shores, where it blossomed into “lumber.” It is within living memory, or “time within mind,” that the more intelligible term “timber merchant” superseded that of “raff-merchant.”

William Stevenson (of Hull.)

Wood: Its Use as a Constructive Material – 1894

—Jeff Burks

Le charpentier – mezzotint by Jacob Gole (1660-1724)
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1 Response to Notes on Word Origins

  1. TheCreativeHand says:

    Curious. Does anyone know anything about wearing your brace in your hat?


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