Thursday, 31 December 2009

The etymology of no-man's-land

A friend asked me about the origin of "no-man's-land". Let me quote an explanation I found here:

The term 'No man's land' appeared in the Doomsday book - namesmaneslande - and referred to any unclaimed land in the town or countryside. It has also been written as: 'No Man's Land', 'No-man's-land', 'Nomansland' and almost every combination of the three words one can think of. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) unequivocally spells it as 'No man's land'. The OED describes it as: a medieval a piece of waste or unwanted land; a plot of ground lying outside the north wall of London used as a place of execution in the Middle Ages; a space amidships used to hold blocks and tackle in the time of sail; and, in a military connotation, an unoccupied space between fronts of opposing fortresses. No date or reference is given by the OED for the etymology of the latter term, but it is quite evident that it was not widely used by the British Regular Army when the BEF first arrived in France in 1914. The terms most frequently used by the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 were: 'between the trenches' or 'between the lines'. However, the future innovator of the tank, Ernest Swinton (later Major General), certainly used the term as a war correspondence on the Western Front, with specific mention of the terms with respect to the 'race to the sea' in late 1914. However, it was the famous Anglo-German Christmas Truce of 1914 which brought the term into common use, and thereafter it appears constantly in official communiqués, newspaper reports and the journals and letters of the members of the BEF. ("No Man's Land and the Western Front in the Great War")
So the term didn't originate with the First World War. It was also used in old times for dumping groups for refuse, execution grounds, contested or unoccupied land between fiefdoms etc.

I then looked up "common" ("commons") and "no man's land" in a few dictionaries and it turns out that the terms overlap even more than I thought. Both, for instance, mean waste or unused land.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica defines commons as an “area of land for use by the public” and adds: “The term originated in feudal England, where the ‘waste’, or uncultivated land, of a lord’s manor could be used for pasture and firewood by his tenants” (The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 3, 1987)

For "common", the Oxford English Dictionary lists, among other meanings, the following: “A common land or estate; the undivided land belonging to the members of a local community as a whole. Hence, often, the patch of unenclosed or ‘waste’ land which remains to represent that”. It also quotes Eben William Robertsons Historical Essays from 1872: “In England, we are now accustomed to give the name of 'common’ to a tract of uncultivated waste land alone, but at a comparatively recent period the name, as opposed to ‘close’, still continued to be applied to fields, pastures, meadows and indeed to every description of land held in joint-occupation and not in ‘the lord’s domain’” (The Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. III, 2’d edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

Here's from the entry for “no man’s land”, referred to in the text above (just for the record): “A piece of waste, or unused, land; in early use as the name of a plot of ground, lying outside the north wall of London, and used as a place of execution”. The oldest example quoted in the OED is a text mentioning “nonesmanneslonde” from 1320. Judging from the examples, the word only somewhat later came to be used for unclaimed land generally. In In 1719 Daniel Defoe writes in Robinson Crusoe about “a kind of Border, that might be called a no-Man’s Land”. In the 19th century, the word is used more or less as we would today (Thus we find a "small lot of noman’s land in the woods”, an area “sandwiched as a kind of no man’s land" between Afghanistan and India etc). During the first world war, it acquires is famous military connotation: “The terrain between the front lines of armies entrenched opposite one another” (The Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. X, second edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

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