In modern English forest and woodland are used interchangeably. Forest is more often used to describe a large area of trees in the landscape, sometimes being linked with economic productivity, than the term woodland. However, they are very loosely defined terms, at least in popular language. I explore the origins for forest and woodland, and some other collective nouns for trees.
Like the French forêt, the English word forest has at its root the Medieval Latin foresta, in turn probably derived from late-Latin foras meaning ‘outside’. The word developed in Norman areas. Elsewhere in Europe other terms for forest were founded on different roots:
- Dutch bos means forest. It has a similar root to the French bocage meaning grove or a landscape of mixed trees/hedges and fields.
- German wald is thought to have come from the Proto-Germanic word “walpu” (meaning foliage or branches). Forst, is commonly used to describe economically-managed areas of trees.
- Italian for woodland, selva, comes from classical Latin silva although foresta is now commonly used to describe forest.
- Portuguese floresta means forest (as well as flowers in French).
- Spanish, monte, is sometimes used for forest although it has many other meanings including mountain. More usually silva is used for woodland and forestales for forest.
Forest or woodland
Historically, forest originally meant an area outside (foras) ordinary jurisdiction, being subject to separate ‘forest law’. Forest law was primarily designed to protect and provide game for the King’s table. A Forest would include large areas of land that were not covered with trees, such as farmland, and even whole towns and villages. Its woodlands and other tree features (e.g. hedges) would have been important in providing the habitat for the game. The forest law was enforced, often with harsh consequences, by foresters.
We have now lost the clear definition of forest in English, and an area of trees can be forest or woodland, and of course just a wood too. Forest is normally linked to large areas of trees (e.g. Affric Forest, New Forest, Grizedale Forest), although the scale at which a woodland becomes a forest is undefined. Areas managed economically for timber production are often referred to as forest, but not exclusively, whereas woodland is a term now closely associated with naturalness. We talk about ancient woodland or native woodland, not forest: the popular British NGO The Woodland Trust focusses almost exclusively on these two aspects.
Copse, spinney, grove, thicket, coppice …
There are dozens of other names for a group of trees in the English language. Their definitions are also rather loose but we can delight in celebrating the diversity they bring to conversation:
- avenue – a line of trees, one or more rows deep, each side of a road or vista
(e.g. Clipsham Yew Tree Avenue).
- brake – a clump of shrubs, brushwood, briars or fallen trees (see also thicket).
- coombe – the head of a wood in a valley
(cwm – valley (often wooded) in the Welsh language).
- coppice – an area of woodland where the shrubs (e.g. hazel) are cut regularly to produce products.
- copse – a very small woodland (perhaps less than 0.25 hectares?).
- covert – a dense groups of trees or shrubs, often connected with game.
- dingle – a deep wooded valley or dell.
- grove – a small group of trees without undergrowth. Also used to describe a productive system (e.g.orange grove).
- spinney – often used to describe a copse that shelters game.
- stand – a small group of trees. Also used by foresters to describe a particular group of trees under similar management.
- thicket – a dense growth of shrubs and briars.
- wood is used interchangeably with woodland.