An article from World Wide Words discusses the history of the word “forest,” which is more complicated than you might think:

The origin of the word forest is usually explained as coming from the late Latin phrase forestis silva, which was apparently applied to areas of land used by the Emperor Charlemagne for hunting. Here, silva meant “woodland” (as in “sylvan” and “silviculture”) and forestis meant “outdoor, outside” (apparently related to the Latin fores, “door”), so that forestis silva meant something like “beyond the main or central area of administration; outside the common law”. In time, the phrase became shortened to forest, but retained a sense of separateness and exclusion. It was this sense that the Normans brought with them when they invaded England in 1066. A forest for them and their successors was an area of unenclosed countryside, consisting of a highly variable mixture of woodland, heathland, scrub and agricultural land. Its purpose was to raise deer, which needed a variety of land—woodland to rest and hide in during the day, and more open land in which to feed at night….

By a process of transference, the meaning of the word forest gradually shifted, as the force of the old forest law declined after about 1500, from the legal area to the woodland within the forest, so giving us our modern sense of the word.

In between the two sections quoted above comes a discussion of forest law and what it entailed, and this should be read by anyone with a love for arcane and obsolete words: “The forests had an army of staff to look after them: seneschals, justiciars, regarders and verderers administered the forest laws…. The courts that heard offences were either courts of eyre (travelling courts to hear serious offences, from the Latin iterare, ‘to travel’, which also gives us words like ‘iteration’), or of swainmote (a court held three times a year principally to control the pasturage of pigs in the forest…)” And we get puture, assarts, agisters, fewmets, and “the ceremonial gralloching or evisceration of the deer after the kill.” Fun for one and all!


  1. We still sort of use “forests” that way when speaking of US National Forests, which are areas run by the governement in a particular way, which may (or, in places like here in Arizona, may not) have trees.

  2. Interesting — I didn’t realize there were National Forests without trees!

  3. The New Forest in Hampshire UK, set up by William the Conqueror (and therefore ‘new’ give or take 950 years), is today probably about 70% treeless – the open space is heathland grazed by deer and semi domestic livestock including the famous New Forest ponies, cattle and pigs (which are allowed out for the acorn season, a period known as ‘pannage’.) The affairs of forest commoners are still dealt with by the ‘Court of Verderers’ who meet in Lyndhurst.

  4. On iterare: my Latin dictionaries say iterare means `repeat’, from iterum `again’, which is not related to iter, itiner- `travel’; but OED derives eyre from Late Latin iterare `to journey’. I guess we’re looking at two verbs, independently derived at different times from different roots, that happened to take the same form.

  5. This seems like a good place to add the etymology of savage:

    mid-13c., “fierce, ferocious;” c. 1300, “wild, undomesticated, untamed” (of animals and places), from Old French sauvage, salvage “wild, savage, untamed, strange, pagan,” from Late Latin salvaticus, alteration of silvaticus “wild,” literally “of the woods,” from silva “forest, grove” (see sylvan).

    And, interestingly, under “sylvan”:

    The unetymological –y– is a misspelling in Latin from influence of Greek hylē “forest,” from which the Latin word formerly was supposed to derive.

  6. Trond Engen says

    The Germanic “heathen” word is the same image. It could be a calque.

  7. Reminds of a strange Royal Navy tradition.

    They have this weird thing called “stone frigates”.

    Basically, Royal Navy can designate small islands or island stations “stone frigates” with frigate commander of appropriate rank.

    Apparently this is due to some ancient law which prohibits Navy jurisdiction over land, so they’ll have to pretend that this is a ship, just stone one.

  8. John Cowan says

    Although HMS Diamond Rock, an uninhabited islet off Martinique, the original stone frigate, was only in commission 1803-05 until its capture by the French, Royal Navy ships still salute it as they pass. Acting Lieutenant Benjamin Westcott, in command at the time, was court-martialed for the loss of his “ship”, but though he was acquitted of negligence, he was also dismissed the service, and became a U.S. citizen three years late.

    Stone frigates nowadays are on-land establishments for training or other purposes, so that those who attend them are under military law (and possibly gain credit for time at sea, but I’m not sure about that).

  9. Trond Engen says

    I spent my training months as a conscript at KNM Harald Haarfagre in Stavanger and KNM Tordenskjold in Bergen. I learn from the latter link that the custom of naming on-land training centers as ships was brought to Norway after WW2 by navy commanders who had served in the Norwegian forces in Britain.

  10. A relevant letter from the 26 April 2018 LRB (available at the bottom of this page even if you don’t have a subscription):

    Michael Neill treats the words forest and wood as semantically interchangeable (LRB, 22 March). Yet in Shakespeare’s time the two still had distinct senses. Wood is a near homophone of wode (‘mad’) and, as Neill points out, Shakespeare plays on this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Demetrius feels ‘wood within this wood’. Euphony and alliteration give us the wildwood, the earliest use of which recorded in the OED is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A wood is a place of wildness, where madmen and outlaws tend to hide. Forest is, etymologically, the antithesis of woodland: it is a controlled space, usually requisitioned by the monarch and held as a game preserve, carefully nurtured, its uses licensed and its privileges guarded. Wood is of Old English provenance, forest of French, and it was the Normans who requisitioned the territories that would form the New Forest and the other medieval hunting grounds of England, which were intended for the pleasure of the few. (There was plenty of woodland in Ireland, but no forests of medieval date and name, as Spenser knew well; there are more than two hundred occurrences of the word wood in The Faerie Queene, and only twenty of forest.)

    Forest is cognate with the Italian fuori and both derive from the Latin foris, ‘outdoors’ or ‘outside’, understood in terms of city walls and gates. Outside the gates is where one ‘dis-ports’ oneself, hence the word sport, whose etymology is still clear in the Spanish deportivo. Outside the gates one engages in the chase and in those pastimes which, being subject to rules, are known as games. The hunt is the chase, and what is hunted will be named for the rules, as game: ‘We have had pastimes here and pleasant game,’ quibbles the princess in Love’s Labours Lost.

    It might be argued that the existence of Robin Hood, an outlaw who makes his home in Sherwood Forest, robs these etymological distinctions of any value. Certainly his legend has helped to transform our sense of the forest, leading to the modern conflation of forest and wood. But in Shakespeare’s plays the distinction remains: in a wood there is no law, and in a wood near Athens wild things happen, while Birnam Wood defies nature. By contrast, in the Forest of Arden all that occurs is of human devising.

    Charles Lock
    University of Copenhagen

    Unfortunately, Lock is wrong about the etymology of (di)sport: it’s not from porta ‘gate’ but from portāre ‘to carry.’

  11. Lars Mathiesen says

    Forest, cp D Tiergarten, Da dyrehave, Sw djurgård for these privileged hunting preserves. Swedish even has the parallel formations djurgård/trädgård.

  12. John Cowan says

Speak Your Mind