Posted by James Briggs on February 22, 2000
In Reply to: Re: "This Neck Of The Woods" posted by Bruce Kahl on February 22, 2000
: : : What is the origin of the phrase "In your neck of the woods" or "In this neck of the woods"?
: : Here's my theory. In the country, there aren't any street addresses. So you literally use landmarks to refer to where a person lives. Up in your neck of the woods or up the holler. On the mountain. Down on the river.
: "Neck of the woods," meaning a certain region or neighborhood, is one of those phrases we hear so often that we never consider how fundamentally weird they are. In the case of "neck," we have one of a number of terms invented by the colonists in Early America to describe the geographical features of their new home. There was, apparently, a conscious attempt made to depart from the style of place names used in England for thousands of years in favor of new "American" names. So in place of "moor," "heath," "dell," "fen" and other such Old World terms, the colonists came up with "branch," "fork," "hollow," "gap," "flat" and other descriptive terms used both as simple nouns ("We're heading down to the hollow") and parts of proper place names ("Jones Hollow").
: "Neck" had been used in English since around 1555 to describe a narrow strip of land, usually surrounded by water, based on its resemblance to the neck of an animal. But the Americans were the first to apply "neck" to a narrow stand of woods or, more importantly, to a settlement located in a particular part of the woods. In a country then largely covered by forests, your "neck of the woods" was your home, the first American neighborhood
This is an example of a "fossil" word in which an old word has been preserved in only one or two special sayings. Short Shrift is one example. In the case of Neck the ancestor words in Old Breton (cnoch) and Old German (hnack) both had a sense of "hill" or "summit"; ie identifying a place.