Forest, woodland, copse or spinney

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.

Non-English terms

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.

Gabriel Hemery

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15 thoughts on “Forest, woodland, copse or spinney

  1. Fascinating stuff! It brings to mind a piece written about the difficulties in English of the word ‘forestry’ by Professor jeff Burley, University of Oxford, some while ago:

    “When the scientific study of forests began in France, a distinction was made between the body of knowledge, ‘science forestière’, and the corresponding economic activity, ‘économie forestière’ or ‘exploitation forestière’. Similarly, in German, ‘Forstwissenschaft’ was distinguished from ‘Forstwirtschaft’, and the Spanish created a word from Greek roots, ‘dasonomía’, for the science. It is unfortunate that no such distinction was made in English; instead, the old term ‘forestry’ was used to cover both the body of knowledge and the economic activity, and the practitioners of both were given the name of foresters. English remains the only language in which the science and the activity are confused, though the word ‘foresterie’ has made an unwelcome appearance in ‘Franglais’.”

    IUFRO News Vol.26, 1997, Issue 2

  2. Interesting information. I have always been a little unsure why we did not adopt the word “bois” into English. As I understand it, “bois” in French is used in the same way that we use the word “wood”. It has the double meaning of wood, as in tree’d area or parkland, and wood, as in the material derived from trees. Is it simply that we already had the word wood, and no need to change?

    Also, not wanting to leave North America in the lurch. One of the most commonly seen terms there is “woodlot”. This more directly speaks to the way in which large expanses of forest were packaged into smaller lots for individuals to own and manage. Typically, woodlot owners derive firewood, timber and a range of other products, such as maple syrup. Often the boundaries of these woodlots go back to the original land settlement by Europeans, and follow on directly from “treaty” arrangements with the First Nations peoples.

    The term “woodlot” might have increasing relevance in the UK, as we see a trend towards more people purchasing small parcels of woodland for their own pleasure, conservation objectives or in a drive for self-sufficiency.

  3. how strange that dutch language may employ the term “bos ” -very close to the french term bocage- as a concept word for forest….may be due to the fact that Holland being a rather” a watery countryside” presenting a certain similarity with the ancient “pays de Gaule ” which before Roman invasion had been in fact already cleared and cultivated in large areas along rivers and waterways giving to the Gallic landscape during Antiquity such a similar aspect of “Bocage…”

  4. What about plantations though?

    Fascinating, as ever, thanks Gabriel! But…. surely many if not most of Britain’s forests are actually “plantations”?

    I like the Friends of the Earth (I wonder what Tony Juniper thinks?), position statement:

    “Tree plantations are not forests. They are a monoculture which causes huge impacts throughout the world. Plantations are a huge number of very rapidly growing single species of trees of the same age…. When they reach their reproductive cycle, they are all cut down to the ground. Plantations are uniform agricultural systems which replace in many cases natural ecosystems or agro-ecological systems which are richer in terms of biological and cultural diversity, and where many peasant and indigenous communities live.”

    Are we really doing enough to actually transform our plantations into forests or woods?

    1. Interesting Alec. I agree of course that there are few truly natural forests in Britain and many could be defined as plantations in some sense.

      Perhaps we need a better definition of “plantation”?

      As to the FOE view I imagine that this is very much focussed on industrial forest plantations particularly in the tropics/developing world in which case it is accurate. However, it certainly is not accurate to most European plantation forests that are now managed to sustainable forest management standards.

      Thank you for the postcard from the Cevennes – you will have gathered that I was there myself recently too!

  5. Lest we forget the American ‘unit’, to describe particular jurisdictions of trees organized for logging, hunting, and miscellaneous purposes. Although it is a governmental term, I’ve heard it used informally in a linguistic niche similar to ‘stand’, referring to any divisible grouping of trees.

  6. Thank you for your sonorous list of English words to describe different groups of trees, to which I was drawn by the sudden need to differentiate between a copse and a spinney …

    However, your etymology of ‘coombe’ seems a little off-piste: it’s usually traced back to the Welsh ‘cwm’, which means valley (your form ‘cym’ is only understandable in Welsh as an abbreviation of Cymru (Wales) as used on the back of some Welsh cars ..).

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