Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Despite the fact that tons of it is produced every day, I think it’s safe to say that most of us don’t interact with manure very often. That wasn’t necessarily the case in the days before the automobile, when horses provided the locomotion of choice and subsistence farming was widespread. In those days, some farmers spent entire days — from sunup to sundown — dealing with manure.
But probably not in the way you’re thinking.
The word manure traces back to the Latin words manus “hand” and operari “to work, operate.” In Medieval Latin, manu operare meant “to do work by hand” — a very general idea. This evolved into the Old French manovrer, which also took on a more specific meaning of working the land by hand — that is, cultivating the land, tilling the soil. Right around 1400, we start to find the borrowing manouren in English texts, which eventually became manure.
From this point up until the mid-16th century, manure was a verb, not a noun. A farmer with a large field might spend the entire day manuring the land to prepare for a new planting. But when a field is manured, a big part of the process is putting dung and compost into the soil as fertilizer. Over time, the word for tilling that dung into the land came to refer to the dung itself.
Today, you almost never see manure used as a verb.
BONUS: That Old French verb manovrer continued on its merry linguistic way on the continent. By the mid-18th century, the word (by then most often spelled manœuvrer because French) had also developed the meaning “to perform military or naval movements.” English re-borrowed the word at about that time as both a noun and a verb.
In British and Australian English, it’s still usually manoeuvre, but thanks to Noah Webster, in the States it’s the word maneuver, a close relative of manure.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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