The basic tool of a copyeditor in the U.S. is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Of course there are times when one needs to consult the OED, specialized reference sources, and the Great God Google, but for basic “how is this word spelled” situations, that’s the book to have at hand (yes, you can check their Online Dictionary as well, but it doesn’t have all the material in I’m a fuddy-duddy and prefer the physical book). As I flip through looking for a particular entry, I tend to notice the guide words at the top of each page (Shangri-la and shittim always bring a smile, for different reasons), and sometimes I wind up investigating them to the detriment of efficient copyediting. Such a word is serviceberry. I’d seen it more than once and vaguely wondered about the odd name; this time I focused on it and discovered an interesting story.

The “service” involved has nothing to do with helping others; it’s the Collegiate‘s service [noun (2)], “an Old World tree (Sorbus domestica) resembling the related mountain ashes but having larger flowers and larger edible fruit; also: a related Old World tree (S. torminalis) with bitter fruits,” and the word was originally serves, the plural of serve, Old English syrfe, from Vulgar Latin *sorbea, a popular equivalent of Latin sorbus ‘service (tree).’ The OED’s first citation for service is 1530 PALSGR[AVE] 265/1 Sarves, tree, alisier; you can see the last gasp of the old plural before it was reinterpreted in Robert Burton’s 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy I. ii. II. i. 92 “Nuts, Medlers, Serues, &c.”


  1. The mention of shittim reminds me of architecture school and a very nice man who was a professor, called Tim Wood. When he asked what the buildings we were designing were made of, we always said shittim wood.

  2. Trond Engen says

    Seeing the word I thought it might be a nistransllation of bringebær “raspberries”.

  3. They’re called shadberries too, supposedly because they blossom when the shad come up the rivers. Good eating right off the tree.
    I suppose I can take the risk of mentioning that you can get full access to the online version of NID3 by going to merriam hyphen webster dot com slash daypass slash access dot htm [sic]. Seemingly this was a trial access that the good folks at The Dictionary left open by accident (since you have to pay if you click on one of their direct links), but it’s been so for many years now. NID3 isn’t being updated, but it’s a good resource nonetheless.

  4. Wow, thanks, JC.

  5. Except when I try it, all I get is the same page as merriam-w dotcom.

  6. Trond Engen says

    Schadenfreude is what German fishermen used to feel when marine fish got themselves trapped in a river.
    Or at least The Online Etymology Dictionary says that English ‘shad’ may have been borrowed as LG schade. I was really looking for a connection to e.g. Danish skade “magpie”, a semantically more pleasing animal to name berries for, but that word is purely North Germanic and would have yielded ‘skateberries’ or something if borrowed into English.

  7. marie-lucie says

    I had always wondered what “serviceberries” were. There must be several species, because I have always been told that mountain ash berries were not edible.
    Is anyone familiar with “cloudberries”? At one time I thought I knew, but I was mistaken. I have encountered the name only in the context of relatively high latitudes.

  8. Is anyone familiar with “cloudberries”?
    I am; they’re delicious. They’re very popular in Scandinavia, and since both my wife and I have Norwegian family connections, we seek them out at Yuletide to go with her krumkake. They’re called molte or multe in Norwegian and морошка (moroshka) in Russian.

  9. The Firefox toolbar m-w search engine gets me to this. And the Unabridged (awesome, JC) adds a second entry “shadblow”:

    1 also shadblow serviceberry : JUNEBERRY 1

  10. Direct link to the 4th definition via Firefox toolbar.

  11. Mountain Ash berries fall into the botanical category “fruit from which we’ve made jellies but won’t bother again”. That’s jellies for eating on lamb, not for eating with nice cream.

  12. marie-lucie says

    Thanks, dearieme, I will try to remember that next time I see a mountain ash.

  13. Here’s another link to the relevant entry.
    I’m not aware of any MWCD11 material that isn’t currently in the online version. For a while they would only give you the entries from the 10th edition, but they silently updated it. (They also used to withhold the dates of first known use.)

  14. Trond Engen says

    Do I read the Unabridged M-W right saying that there’s a pronunciation of shadberry with “long a”? Probably not, it looks more like a typo.
    After giving up the birds name, I had an idea that it could be the ‘shad’ of ‘shadow’, meaning “fog” or “darkness”. I even thought marie-lucie was thinking along the same lines when providing the parallel ‘cloudberries’.
    But that won’t work either. I’d been thinking that ‘shadberries’ equals ‘serviceberries’ equals Sorbus domestica, but I now see that it applies to the genus Amelanchier, which has taken over the name ‘serviceberry’ in North America. So ‘shadberry’ is a North American coinage and a derivation from other words than the fish name unlikely to impossible. (The “darkness” semantics actually fits for Amelanchier, though: “The fruit is a berry-like pome, red to purple to nearly black at maturity, 5–15 mm diameter, insipid to delectably sweet, maturing in summer.” Oh, well.)
    I learn about the shadflower, a tiny early spring plant used as a remedy for skin wounds, and the Shadscale, a desert bush used as winter food for livestock. Both are native to the American west. Does the fishy etymology apply here too?
    And there’s the shadbelly, a jacket worn by equestrians for horse shows and foxhunting. The WP article (a charming collection of loose bits and pieces) curiously claims that “[t]he earliest use of the concept of a “shadbelly” coat goes back to biblical times when Chaldean priests wore coats representing the body of a fish. citation needed”

  15. marie-lucie says

    Off the top of my head, I would be more inclined to associate shadberry with shade than with the “shad” fish. A parallel formation with the same vowel differentiation is cranberry where “cran” is likely to be from crane. The plant known as shadscale, growing in semi-desertic places in the American Southwest, cannot have anything to do with the fish.
    As for the shadbelly riding coat (a word in which “shad” may have a different origin), I find the reference to the garments of “Chaldean priests” outlandish. There are Assyrian or Babylonian (at least Mesopotamian) representations of either a fish-god, or priests of such a god wearing what looks like a fish disguise, but it is ridiculous to think that the riding coat has anything to do with the garments featured in those representations. “Split tails” are obviously functional for a riding coat (also known as swallowtail, not “fishtail”), and the ancient fish costume (if that is what is pictured) is unlikely to have been worn for riding.

  16. Though we eat them every Christmas, I think multe or cloudberries are overrated. They’re okay with whipped cream or as jam, but they don’t have anything like the amount of flavour of raspberries or blackcurrants or strawberries or even cranberries. Also, I once had to wade through bogs in the damp mountain cold to pick them. That was no picnic.

  17. Trond: Do I read the Unabridged M-W right saying that there’s a pronunciation of shadberry with “long a”?
    I read it as

    ‘shad-, -aa(ə)d- —see BERRY

    The pronunciation guide gives the sound of “aa” before the schwa in the alternate pronunciation as “bad, bag, fan as often pronounced in an area having New York City and Washington, D. C. on its perimeter”. To me that’s not a long “a”, but with New York, who can say.

  18. marie-lucie says

    It is not a “long a” as often understood, meaning the sound represented by the letter “a” in words like shade, crane, pane, etc, where the pronunciation is the same as in raid, rain, pain. But in NY speech (and some other American varieties) the “short a” as in bat, pat, tap, etc is shorter than the one in bad, pad, tab, which tends to be lengthened: “Oh, that’s baaaad!”, for instance, but never “That’s a baaaat”. The end of “baaaad” is what “aa(ə)d” means here, a possible variant of “-ad”.

  19. Crown: I’m guessing that it won’t work for you because you have disallowed cookies in your browser. The true home is unabridged dot merriam-webster dot com, but going directly there will not work unless you have visited the daypass page today.
    Marie-Lucie: The OED gives the etymology of cranberry thus:

    A name of comparatively recent appearance in English; entirely unknown to the herbalists of 16-17th c., who knew the plant and fruit as marsh-whorts, fen-whorts, fen-berries, marsh-berries, moss-berries. Several varieties of the name occur in continental languages, as HG kranichbeere, kranbeere, LG krônbere, krones- or kronsbere, krônsbär, kranebere (all meaning ‘crane-berry’); cf. also Sw tranbär, Da tranebær, f. trana, trane, ‘crane’.
    […] The name appears to have been adopted by the North American colonists from some LG source, and brought to England with the American cranberries (V. macrocarpon), imported already in 1686, when Ray (Hist. Pl. 685) says of them “hujus baccas a Nova Anglia usque missas Londini vidimus et gustavimus. Scriblitis seu ortis (Tarts nostrates vocant) eas inferciunt”. Thence it began to be applied in the 18th c. to the British species (V. Oxycoccos). In some parts, where the latter is unknown, the name is erroneously given to the cowberry (V. Vitis Idæa).

    So cranberry is not directly < crane-berry, but is an anglicization of a borrowing from a related language in which the reduction to cran- had already occurred.
    Nijma: Americans who have the lad/bad split have [eə], or something close to it, in bad words. In the U.K. the split is about length (bad words are longer) rather than raising to a diphthong.

  20. I’m not aware of any MWCD11 material that isn’t currently in the online version.
    My mistake, then; I wasn’t searching properly. Thanks, I’ll fix the post accordingly.

  21. Thanks again, John.

  22. marie-lucie says

    JC: thank you for the precision about cran(e)berry. It does work, even through the extra detour.
    the lad/bad split: I am not familiar with this split, only with the bat/bad one.
    [eə], or something close to it, in “bad” words
    I have heard that pronunciation, which exaggerates the difference between the vowels of bat and bad by raising and diphthongizing the longer vowel, but in Canada I think that there is just the length distinction. (A dialect atlas would give more details of the geographical extent of the raising and lengthening).

  23. I’d forgotten Wade, whose name always sounds to me like “Wayne” uttered by someone with a cold.
    I’ll second JC’s lad/bad split. For me, if lad were to be pronounced like bad, it would come out as a non-rhotic “laird”.

  24. mollymooly says

    I’ve only had cloudberries frozen or in hjortron yoghurt. I’m sure they’re better fresh. My impression is that Swedes prefer smultron to hjortron and Norwegians vice versa. If Ingmar Bergman had been Norwegian maybe the film would have been called “Cloudberries”.

  25. marie-lucie says

    You guys must be right about the existence of a lad/bad split in some places, but since I (living in anglophone Canada) had never heard (about) it, can you be more specific, or provide a reference or two?

  26. I know someone (from NY) who says that for him “can” the auxiliary verb and “can” the noun sound different.

  27. Check this out, m-l. I’m one of those in the “David Jones” bit, I think.
    Norwegians like both kinds, but they grow in different environments and at different times. We had absolutely tons of wild strawberries in our garden this year, and they were there for a couple of months; multe (or hjortron, in Swedish) are only available for about a week, in the mountains or up north). As I’m sure you’re aware, the Bergman title Smultronstället, which literally means “the wild strawberry patch”, idiomatically means an underrated gem of a place (often with personal or sentimental value) (from Wikipedia).

  28. I would say “I c’n give you a can”, but “Yes we can!”, so the verb’s pronunciation changes depending on the context.

  29. Even when pronounced in isolation they have different vowels for him.

  30. marie-lucie says

    Ø: I know someone (from NY) who says that for him “can” the auxiliary verb and “can” the noun sound different. …. Even when pronounced in isolation they have different vowels for him.
    I ran into this in one of my first linguistics courses (in the US). The teacher did not make this distinction, but one woman declared (and demonstrated) that she did, to the surprise of the other students.
    AJP, thank you for the link. I was not aware of the bad/lad split (which includes so many more word pairs), but the article said it is not found in (most of) Canada. However, I once heard a talk on the dialects of Prince Edward Island, a tiny province of Canada, but linguistically surprisingly varied: among other things, there were at least two ways of pronouncing “Aunt Martha” (I remember “Ant Ma(r)tha” and “Aunt Maatha”).
    Wild strawberries: I knew that the title had a metaphorical meaning in Swedish, but I did not remember what it was. In French the title was Les fraises sauvages, a literal translation of the English title, but in French those strawberries are called les fraises des bois (forest strawberries), which has no other meaning.

  31. “Attack Of The Wild Strawberries!”

  32. Around here (Western Oregon), where they grow wild, it’s pronounced so that the first syllable rhymes with “far,” just to make things more confusing. Myself feels edified by the etymology, having been told it was a folk-etymological orthographic shift from someone named “Sarvice” who discovered them.

  33. apc:
    The er > ar shift was mostly reversed in English, except where it happened early enough that the spelling shifted to follow it, as in star, barn, mark; we no longer say marcy, sarvice, sartain. One exception is sergeant &lt Latin servientem, and another is the name of the letter R, which has no standard spelling. The synonyms (pot)shard and (pot)sherd and the surnames Kerr and Carr are doublets: one shifted, the other not.
    Q: What happens when one minister calls another?
    A: A parson-to-parson call.
    This is the shift in operation: the parson was in legal Latin persona ecclesiae, the person(ality) of the parish church.

  34. That’s interesting. My grandfather (a nautical gent) used to say “starn” for stern.

  35. Is Barclay the same name as Berkeley?

  36. I would think so, since the name of the philosopher Berkeley is pronounced Bar-kley.

  37. Deborah Kerr, it seems, pronounced her name with the START vowel.
    Some more doublets: shear/sharp, dear/dar(ling), steer/starboard, firm/farm, errant/arrant. In addition, the shifted BrE pronunciations of clerk, derby (which were undone in AmE) gave us the names Clark, Darby.

  38. Deborah Kerr, it seems, pronounced her name with the START vowel.
    My understanding is that she did not pronounce it that way herself but that the studio insisted on it to make her sound exotic and get attention. Wikipedia is ambiguous: “when she was being promoted as a Hollywood actress it was made clear that her surname should be pronounced the same as ‘car’.”

  39. Whereas the late Australian comic actor Bill Kerr’s name was and is pronounced to rhyme with “duh”.

  40. Oops, sorry Bill. By late I mean “never on time”.

  41. Used to be able to get fraises des bois easily in French street markets in the 60s and 70s, but they seem to have completely disppeared now, more’s the pity.

  42. Is Barclay the same name as Berkeley?
    Posted by: Ø

    I would think so, since the name of the philosopher Berkeley is pronounced Bar-kley.
    Posted by: Alan Shaw

    But Cockneys pronounced the “berk” in the Old Berkeley Hunt, which hunted across much of West Middlesex from its kennels at Cranford in the early 19th century, and whose outings provided working-class Londoners with good free entertainment, to rhyme with “jerk”, with results that every good student of Cockney rhyming slang is aware of.
    The fruit of the wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis, has been used in the past to flavour beer (as have the fruits of the rowan or mountain ash, Sorbus aucuparia), and the name “service tree” has sometimes been said, incorrectly, to come from the Latin cerevisia, “ale”. The wild service tree is also known as the chequer tree, “app. in allusion to the chequered or spotted appearance of the fruit” (OED). The fruits of both the “true” and wild service trees need to be “bletted” (lovely word, derived from the French blet, “sleepy”, and introduced into English by the 19th century botanist John Lindley), or allowed to over-ripen, like medlars, before they are properly edible.

  43. The OED updated the “service” entry in March 2021 and antedated Palsgrave by a couple of decades:

    1510 J. Stanbridge Vocabula (new ed.) sig. D.j Arbutus, a seruys tree.

    The “serve” entry was updated at the same time and now has this early cite:

    eOE Bounds (Sawyer 558) (transcript of lost MS) in S. E. Kelly Charters of Abingdon Abbey, Pt. 1 (2001) 186 Þonon to þam won stocce 7 þær to wuda, þonon on þa syrfan.

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