Monday, November 05, 2018


The Word Arboricide

James C. Humes, The Wit & Wisdom of Winston Churchill (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995), p. 140 (in the chapter titled "Coiner of Phrases"):
When his wife had chopped down a favorite elm tree at Chartwell, Churchill said to her, "Clemmie, you are guilty of arboricide!"
The implication is that Churchill coined the word. He did not.

Also incorrect is the claim in the New Republic magazine (May 19, 1997, p. 12) that August Heckscher (1913-1997) "coined the word 'arboricide' for the crime of killing trees."

The first citation (dated 1899) in the Oxford English Dictionary for the word is H.G. Graham, Social Life of Scotl. 18th Cent. I. v. 199: "This crime of arboricide was distressingly frequent."

But the word can be found more than half a century earlier. See Asa Gray, "The Longevity of Trees," North American Review, Vol. 59, No. 124 (July 1844) 189-238, rpt. in Scientific Papers of Asa Gray, Vol. II: Essays; Biographical Sketches: 1841-1886 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1889), pp. 71-124 (at 84):
[T]he age may be directly ascertained by counting the annual rings on a cross section of the trunk. The record is sometimes illegible or nearly so, but it is perfectly authentic; and when fairly deciphered, we may rely on its correctness. But the venerable trunks, whose ages we are most interested in determining, are rarely sound to the centre; and if they were, even the paramount interests of science would seldom excuse the arboricide.

Humes, id., also falsely states that Churchill coined the word "benignant." I haven't bothered to check any of the other supposed coinages, but obviously Humes' claims must be taken magno cum grano salis.


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