holt

Holt, a word for a wooded area, a copse, goes back to Old English. It’s root is common Germanic, with cognates found in Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, etc.

The word is found in line 2598 of Beowulf to describe how the hero’s men abandon him when faced with the dragon:

ac hy on holt bugon, ealdre burgan
(but they fled into the wood to save their lives)

Perhaps the most famous appearance of the word is in line six of “General Prologue” to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes

(When Zephyr also with the his sweet breath
has inspired in every holt and heath
tender crops)

There’s really not much else to say about this word. I came across it while reading an Old Norse account of the settlement of Vinland and wondered if it was a borrowing from Old Norse. The English word isn’t borrowed, it’s just cognate with the Old Norse. Although in Icelandic it means a stony hill—not many trees in Iceland. And indeed, in the account I’m reading, Eiriks saga Rauða or Þorfinns saga Karlsefnis (Eric the Red’s Saga or Thorfinn Karlsefni’s Saga), from a late fifteenth-century manuscript, the word does indeed mean hill as it is contrasted with lowlands:

Þar fundu þeir sjálfsána hveitiakra, þar sem lægðir váru, en vínviðr alt þar sem holta kendi.
(There they found wild-growing (self-sown) wheat fields where there was low-lying land, and grapevines wherever there were hills.)


(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition); Zoëga Geir, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (1910), University of Toronto Press, 2004.

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