Long Beards and Short Tales: Our Lumbering Language

Long Beards and Short Tales: Our Lumbering Language

What do loggers and moneylenders have in common? When is a lumberer a lumberjack? And what the heck is a lumber room?

The answers to these questions are intertangled and ancient, and can be found in large, heavy books about the history of language written in very small print, so small in fact that they must be offered here without any guarantees.

Their origins go way, way back into the dark forest of pagan Europe before anyone ever thought of cutting trees except for making spears or roasting sacrifices. Wodan, or Wotan, was the Germanic god of war and the dead (a handy combination), poetic inspiration and mead (another good combination), valor, ecstasy and the practice of magic. His capacity for rage, lack of morals, unreliability, craftiness and ability to make lightning-quick decisions in panicky situations were passed along to Odin in Scandinavia, to Hermes in ancient Greece, and to the Roman god Mercury. Wodan is also responsible for our Wednesday.

One day when Wodan awoke from a nap in the forest he found himself surrounded by women warriors who had combed their long hair over their faces to make themselves look even more fierce. Apparently startled, he asked aloud, "And who are these long beards?"

The fact that Wodan asked this aloud, rather than just thinking it, is very important because it could thus be overheard, discussed, and passed down into history that this wild-hearted Teutonic tribe should be called Longbeards, which translated into Langobardi when it was finally written down in the Latin language by Tacitus.

In 568 A.D. the Langobardi invaded Italy and settled in the north-central part of the Po Valley, which became known as Lombardy. Gradually the Lombards' interests shifted from war to banking (is there a lesson here?) and they became successful money-lenders who extended their trade throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. In the 14th century, a branch of the powerful Medici family moved into Milan, Lombardy's chief city, and added their wealth and power to the city's already thriving banking businesses. Some of the region's enterprising merchants moved to England and set up businesses as bankers, money-changers, moneylenders, and pawnbrokers, there being very little distinction at that time between these practices.

(Today, London's Lombard Street is famous for its banks and financial houses, and the symbol marking a pawnbroker's shop is still the three golden balls that once appeared in the Medici coat of arms.)

Gradually the successful Lombards' money-lending businesses became synonymous with their name and their establishments became known as Lombards, then Lumbers, and then Lumber Houses. The rooms where they stored their pawn pledges, which were usually furniture or other unwieldy household goods, became known as lumber rooms. In this way, the word lumber assumed the meaning of disused household furnishings, and lumber rooms became places for storing such odds and ends.

It is from here that we make the big leap to colonial America, where the early settlers took up the practice of maintaining their own lumber rooms for their own discarded household junk, which shows just how fast a people can accumulate it even without access to stores. The extra room turned out to be a good place to dry rough timbers which lay about all over the newly cleared land, perhaps also like discarded material.

WHENCE, the persons who moved these unwieldy, cumbersome things about became lumberers.

As the business of felling and moving trees and cutting the logs into boards ceased being an individual or community task and became an industry, the term lumberer began to subdivide into specific tasks or occupations. It was at this point that professional woodsmen became loggers, just as later, out west, they would become lumberjacks.

Exactly when that moment occurred, however, "no man can say," writes Stewart Holbrook, in Holy Old Mackinaw. In Holbrook's opinion, loggers were a species apart, a new race of men created out of a long process of natural selection, like turtles. As proof of their uniqueness, he cites the newspaper story of a steamboat accident in which the reporter states that "three men and a logger downed."

Here, too, in this brief history of our lumbering language, there may be further evidence of the existence of a separate species, in Americus loggerus, whose origins can be traced back not only to the frenzied acts of a gang of wild women in the forests of ancient Germany, but also to the very beginnings of our modern-day banking establishment. And who else among us can claim that?

 
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