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On idioms in general and on “God’s-Acre” in particular

From time to time I receive letters encouraging me to discuss not only words but also idioms. I would be happy to do so if I were better equipped. The origin of proverbial sayings (unless they go back to so-called familiar quotations) and idioms is usually lost beyond recovery. I may once have mentioned how, while working on the etymology of oats in my analytic dictionary, I desperately tried (and failed) to discover the source of the phrase to sow one’s wild oats. All I found were a few paragraphs on agriculture and the earliest recorded citation. Those who use the OED know that it seldom indicates where idioms come from. Rather long ago, I wrote a post on the phrase to pay through one’s nose, and it caused some profitable discussion, though it still remains debatable whose nose is meant and how one pays through it. My attack on it rains cats and dogs seems to have been more successful. I have a respectable database of proverbs and local phrases from Notes and Queries and other old periodicals. Most of those do not occur in Brewer or later dictionaries. In the future, I may use (educated people now say utilize) my home resources and even squeeze a few drops from this stone.

Before I embark on my today’s subject, I should observe that dictionaries explaining “why we say so” are numerous. The problem with even the best of them is that they avoid references, and without references they cannot be trusted. For example, the origin of hell for leather and to go to hell in a hand basket has been explained reasonably well, but the authors of popular books (and here they differ from scholars who deal with such subjects) prefer statements like it has been suggested that, but do not explain whose proposal they cite and whether the proposer deserves credence. This practice is particularly disappointing when it comes to idioms trodden to death, for example, the whole nine yards. Thanks to digitization, our dates and conclusions are becoming more and more reliable, but the origin of the enigmatic phrase and the numeral nine in it (at one time, it seems to have been six) remains unknown, and the formulas it has been suggested and some people think arouse only irritation. Who cares what “some people” think or suggest unless we know why they do so?

So why is the churchyard (or graveyard) called God’s acre? In 1913 a volume presented on the completion of George Lyman Kittredge’s twenty-fifth year of teaching at Harvard University appeared in New York. One of the contributors to it was Professor J. A. Walz, a fellow philologist. Kittredge’s name is known to many from the book Words and their Ways in English Speech by Greenough and Kittredge (at that time, George B. Geenough was a senior colleague, and his name stood first on the title page; anyway, G precedes K in the English alphabet). Walz did exactly what I so often do: he provided a background for his search, looked through multiple dictionaries, collected the publications on God’s acre in Notes and Queries, “that unique meeting place of British ignorance and scholarship,” as he called it, and summarized what he found. I can only retell his publication written a century ago, though I would have encountered those notes myself, inasmuch as my assistants and I have looked through the entire run of that invaluable journal and licked the plate almost clean. (Walz made such extensive use of Notes and Queries, because no other periodical showed any interest in the idiom he set out to research.)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Eastman Johnson, 1846. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Eastman Johnson, 1846. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The contributors to Notes and Queries, among whom we notice such erudite people as James Main Dixon and Frank Chance, discovered everything, including the earliest mention of the phrase in William Camden’s Remains Concerning Britain (1605, published in 1617). Even Murray’s OED could offer no antedating. They also dug up the relevant quotations from the New Testament. Several biblical texts, most pointedly one of the epistles, explain that the dead are “sown” and sleep awaiting resurrection. Finally, they, of course, asked the question about the originator of the phrase. At that time, in the fifties and the seventies of the nineteenth century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had numerous admirers on both sides of the Atlantic, and his early short lyric “God’s-Acre” was known everywhere. Today he seems to be forgotten or looked down upon. Only his name has survived, and, in the United States, one occasionally dines at restaurants with Longfellow in their names. In similar fashion, numerous towns in Italy have hotels called “Byron.” Perhaps this is real immortality.

Be that as it may be, but even in Minneapolis, where I live and where there is Hiawatha Avenue, Nokomis Avenue, and a statue of Hiawatha carrying his bride over Minnehaha Falls, I have not met a single student who has read The Song of Hiawatha (to say nothing of Longfellow’s short poems). But in Longfellow’s lifetime, “God’s-Acre” became an anthologized piece. It begins so:

“I like that ancient Saxon phrase, which calls
The burial ground God’s-Acre! It is just;
It consecrates each grave within its walls,
And breathes a benison o’er the sleeping dust.”

The poem goes on for three more stanzas before it reaches the conclusion:

“With thy rude ploughshares, Death, turn up the sod,
And spread the furrow for the seed we sow;
This is the field and Acre of our God,
This is the place where human harvests grow.”

What is “the ancient Saxon phrase” that Longfellow liked? It did not elude the discussants in Notes and Queries that German has the word Gottesacker “churchyard,” while its English equivalent has not been attested. Let us not forget that the first volume of the OED, with the word acre in it, became available many years later. Some writers missed the point when they said that German Acker and Engl. acre are related, so that there is no problem. Of course, they are, but cognates don’t have to mean the same. Thanks to the citations in the OED and the material supplied by Walz, we now know that, before Longfellow, God’s Acre occurred almost only in descriptions of Germany and with reference to the German idiom. The meaning of almost in the previous sentence will be made clear below. German Acker means “field” (like Latin ager). The “ancient Saxon phrase” did not exist (even in German it appeared only in the sixteenth century), but thanks to Longfellow God’s Acre it is now part of the English vocabulary. How he came to know it is not a secret.

Albert Matthews, an outstanding researcher of American English, provided some facts he did not know when Walz had asked him about God’s Acre, the burial place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It turned out that this name was already current at the end of the seventeenth century. It is again met with in 1827. We can conclude that the equivalent of the German compound had some currency in Cambridge quite early. There is no way of ascertaining how it reached the East Coast, but reach it did, most probably via German speakers. As Matthews pointed out, Longfellow did not come to Cambridge before 1836. He loved the town (see his lyric “To the River Charles”) and could not help hearing the name of the burial place in it. It struck him as poetic, so he assumed that the name was very old, even ancient, and used it in his lyric. (Longfellow knew several languages, as, among other things, his translations from German, Italian, and Old English show.) Without it, God’s Acre (or God’s-acre) would not have become a familiar phrase in English. However, as far as etymology is concerned, it remains a borrowing from German, and Longfellow knew it. The Century Dictionary, quite aptly, quotes from his Hyperion (II. 9): “A green terrace or platform on which the church stands, and which in ancient times was the churchyard, or, as the Germans more devoutly say, God’s-acre.”

Headline image credit: St Giles Church in Stoke Poges. Photo by UKgeofan at English Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jules Levin

    Soldiers in combat buy the farm. Same idea. grave=farn

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