To Fall a Tree.

A correspondent writes: “Commonly we speak of felling trees when somebody is cutting them down, but apparently in the logging community it is more common to say things like ‘I’m going to fall that tree.’ I looked into this because somebody on Facebook shared this U. S. Dept. of the interior official sign warning loggers not to fall a tree because it is a seed tree […] There is some discussion of this usage here. (This discussion suggests that ‘fall’ is used informally, out west, mentions a similar image, and says the DoI is adopting the language of its audience, loggers.)” He adds other sites he found using the form; needless to say, I was intrigued, and fortunately the OED’s entry for the verb fall was updated in September 2017, so here’s the subentry:

29. a. transitive. To cut down (a tree, vegetation, etc.); = fell v. 3. Since the 19th cent. chiefly English regional, North American, Australian, and New Zealand.
Quot. a1325 (from a source whose scribal language is placed by Ling. Atlas Late Mediaeval Eng. in Ireland) is perhaps to be interpreted as showing fell v.: compare discussion at that entry.
In quot. ?1440 with the subject of the clause as the implicit object of the infinitive, with the sense ‘timber is to be felled’.
Early 15th-cent. currency of the sense is implied by quot. a1425 at falling n.¹ 3 [Bible (Wycliffite, L.V.) (Royal) (1850) Psalms lxxiii. 6 Thei castiden doun it with an ax, and a brood fallinge ax [L. in securi et ascia].].

a1325 (▸?c1300) Northern Passion (Cambr. Gg.1.1) l. 1246 (MED) In his horcherd a tre grewe..He dide hit falle [c1450 Cambr. Ii.4.9 fellyn] euche a bothȝ. Wan hit was fallid [Cambr. Ii.4.9 I fellyd] þei gon hit wirche.
▸ ?1440 tr. Palladius De re Rustica (Duke Humfrey) (1896) ii. l. 437 Now matere is to falle in sesoun best.
?1523 J. Fitzherbert Bk. Husbandry f. xliiiv To fall the vnder wood.
1685 in Colonial Rec. Pennsylvania (1852) I. 128 A Penalty to be laid upon such as Cutt or fall Marked..trees.
1744 R. Molesworth Short Course Standing Rules Govt. & Conduct Army iv. 65 Tools, as well for moving Earth, as for cutting down Hedges or Copsewood, falling Timber.
1803 H. Repton Observ. Landscape Gardening v. 75 The most beautiful places may rather be formed by falling, than by planting trees.
1875 W. D. Parish Dict. Sussex Dial. 40 These trees are getting too thick, I shall fall a few of them next year.
1883 Harper’s Mag. Jan. 201/1 We must fall a tree straight and true.
1913 U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals Rep. 118 182 The general custom is for the foreman to tell the men who are about to fall timber to be careful about teams and men who are working around.
1974 W. Leeds Herefordshire Speech 61 Fall, to fell (a tree).
1981 in Dict. Amer. Regional Eng. (1991) II. 341/1 They had each fallen a tree.
2010 A. Krien Into Woods 127 Well, of course we’re meant to fall them [sc. a few trees]. That’s why we’re here.

Are you familiar with this transitive usage? (Thanks, Martin!)


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I am not, but it now strikes me that fell/fall as a pair of verbs (the first causative/transitive, the second intransitive) is parallel to lay/lie, set/sit, raise/rise, etc. Getting the “official” distinction muddled in vernacular usage seems common with some of those other pairs, although maybe most frequently the other way round? E.g. the typical “error” or rusticism is to say “set” where the prescriptive norm would require “sit,” not the other way round, but fall-for-fell would be parallel to sit-for-set.

  2. In all the beer parlours all down along Main Street
    The dreams of the season are all spilled out on the floor
    All the big stands of timber just waitin’ for fallin’
    And the hookers standing watchfully, waiting by the door

    Ian Tyson, “Summer Wages”, 1967

    Hard to find the definitive lyrics, so many people have recorded it and changed the words around. Even Ian & Sylvia recorded it twice and I don’t think they are exactly the same. But it’s “fallin'” in all the versions.

  3. David Marjanović says


    That one I can attest for my dialect of German – but only for this specific verb pair, not for any others.

    (…apart from the fact that the cognates of the former hang/hench have been merged and thoroughly mixed up all over German, to the point that the past participle now takes the vowel of one and the root-final consonant of the other.)

  4. John Emerson says

    The person who actually cuts the tree down is also caller a faller or timber faller. It’s a job category. .This usage isn’t informal, it’s the norm within the trade. “Felling a tree” would just be wrong.

    The truck that takes them to the work site is called a crummy. No idea where that came from .

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    My favorite technical-job-category-title from the timber business is “whistle punk,” which I suppose may now be obsolete due to changes in technology. If you surf the right precincts of the internet, you can find from 1918 the inspiring tale of the girl whistle punk Miss Golda Carey, of the Umpqua Logging Co. of Reedsport, Ore., who “donned overalls and calk shoes to do her bit in helping to lick the Kaiser.”

  6. The person who actually cuts the tree down is also caller a faller or timber faller.

    Thanks for that; here’s the OED (also from September 2017):

    3. A person who fells trees, esp. as an occupation. Cf. fall v. 29a and also feller n.¹ 2. Chiefly Australian, Canadian, and U.S. regional (north-western) in later use.
    Sometimes with preceding word, as timber-faller, wood-faller.

    1614 G. Markham 2nd Bk. Eng. Husbandman ii. ii. 55 You shall giue direction to your wood fallers, that when they shall meete with any faire and straight well growne sapling, Oake, Elme, Ash, or such like, to preserue them.
    1793 D. Collins Acct. Eng. Colony New S. Wales (1798) I. 331 To each [timber] carriage were annexed two fallers and one overseer.
    1862 Once a Week 4 Jan. 49/2 He, with his assistant, the ‘feller’, or as he is usually called the ‘faller’, make their way to the place.
    1908 M. A. Grainger Woodsmen of West xiv. 84 The ‘fallers’ had worked along the slope.
    1966 Daily Colonist (Victoria, Brit. Columbia) 4 Feb. 17/6 Mr. Peterson is employed as a faller by Butler Brothers.
    1971 Timber Trades Jrnl. 14 Aug. 72 (advt.) A gang of experienced fallers required for a parcel of beech and oak near Portsmouth.
    2001 Vancouver Sun (Nexis) 23 Nov. c2 An admission that the high number of logging accidents are in the nature of the job and not the fault of fallers.
    2015 Joondalup (W. Austral.) Times (Nexis) 16 Apr. 44 He worked in the timber industry as a faller, log hauler and log inspector.

  7. The usages without “tree” all sound better to me than those with. “Faller,” “timber faller,” “fall timber,” and the like sound perfectly ordinary. Maybe since I’ve never actually worked on a logging site, with the cutting of individual trees being discussed, “fall a tree” sounds less mellifluous in my ear.

    (And, by the way, a click of my tongue—tsk—for the prescriptivist Latinism in the post title, as well as in the OED style.)

  8. Pohaku Nezami says

    Some friends and I have been restoring a 6-acre piece of forest on a mountain just behind central Honolulu for 17 years. Our (quixotic) aim is to eliminate the invasive species and nourish the natives. We got a great boost around ten years ago when an experienced Oregon woodsman, around 60 years in age, joined and mentored us in taking down trees. We had already been cutting smaller ones (e.g., those with trunks at chest-height of up to a foot or so), but now we could take down really large and tall ones (e.g., banyan, blue marble, cinnamon) always using our friend’s lovingly-cared-for, traditional, 7-8 ft. two-person cross-cut saws. He speaks of “falling” a tree.

  9. Paul Clapham says

    Yes, “faller” is the standard term used here (British Columbia) for people who cut down trees for a living. Consider for example

    which was just the first site I found in my web search.

  10. (And, by the way, a click of my tongue—tsk—for the prescriptivist Latinism in the post title, as well as in the OED style.)

    I don’t get it. What prescriptivist Latinism?

  11. You (and the OED) put “to” before the verb infinitive.

  12. But… there isn’t any “to” in Latin! That’s pure English! And if you don’t have the “to,” it looks like an imperative!

  13. “Faller,” “timber faller,” “fall timber,” and the like sound perfectly ordinary.

    Whereas “timber feller,” until recently, would have sounded to many people like “timber dude.” Not the best job title.

  14. English dictionaries always omit the “to” particle from verbs as headwords, but vary as to whether to include it in the definitions. Exclusion provides parallelism and concision, but I guess it sometimes makes for awkward reading. OTOH noun definitions seem always to supply a determiner.

  15. I’ve recently come across something similar (YMMV):

    An appreciation of the relationship between the Chinese and Japanese languages, as exemplified through the shared system of written characters, behoves the researcher to investigate the changes that have occurred in the meaning and usage of the characters ‘ao’ and ‘midori’ in their native home (China) and the way these semantic changes have been reflected in the use of these characters in their adopted home (Japan).

    Not the usual ‘it behoves/behooves me/us/etc to…’ pattern.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Lose has really thoroughly messed with people’s minds.

  17. But then there’s the celebrated painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (in the Tate Britain).

    British usage for that, of course.

  18. @maidhc: That is such a weird painting.

  19. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it, considering the circs?

  20. I’m a New Zealander, and have never heard this usage in 50 years. A quick search suggests that it is rare and largely old-fashioned here:

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