As I write this, it’s election time here in Canada, and while as a US citizen I can’t vote, I can enjoy kibitzing the linguistic aspects of another country’s politics. One of the words that has jumped out at me is riding. It’s a Canadian term for a member of parliament’s constituency, what we would call a district back in the States. I would have guessed that the term’s origin had something to do with the distance someone could ride a horse to get to the polls or something similar, but upon looking it up, I was taking aback. It’s a very old word with a much more interesting etymology than I would have imagined.

The word dates to the Old English period and was brought to Britain by the Viking invaders. It’s from the Old Norse þriðjung, meaning a third part. The Old English version *þriðing or *þriding doesn’t appear in the extant manuscripts, but it is attested to in Anglo-Latin texts where it is translated as trehinga. The word refers to one of three districts the Danes divided English counties into. The earliest known appearance in English is shortly after the Norman Conquest as a place name in the Domesday Book, where the names Nort Treding and Est Treding are recorded as places in Yorkshire.

This tripartite administrative divisioning stuck in Yorkshire and in Lindsay in Lincolnshire, but over time thrithing was worn down to riding. The initial consonant sound was lost in combinations like East Treding and North Thrithing, and helped on by folk etymological associations with the common verb, the word became riding by sometime in the late fifteenth century.

In modern use, riding is not limited to the special cases in the north of England and to Canada. The ridings of Yorkshire were abolished in 1972, but the word lives on in unofficial use. It also appears in various places throughout the Commonwealth. The Oxford English Dictionary records a riding in Long Island, New York in 1675, but the word didn’t take root in the United States. The word is used in Ireland, and the OED includes citations from New Zealand and Sri Lanka. But it is in Canada where the word has pretty much entered the standard lexicon. Canadian use dates to at least 1792. And to bring it up to date, the Toronto Globe and Mail includes this from 26 March 2011:

Newfoundland and Labrador Senator Fabian Manning is to announce Monday that he will be running for the Conservatives in the riding of Avalon.

Works Cited:

“riding, n.2 Oxford English Dictionary Online. Third edition. June 2010. Web. 27 March 2011.

“trithing | thrithing, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Second edition. 1989. Web. 27 March 2011.

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