September 26, 2013

Case File #013.09.26: MANURE

If you're like me, you probably aren't keen on the idea of getting manure on your hands, so it might surprise you to learn that the word manure ultimately evolved from the Latin verb phrase manu operari, which meant “to work using one's hands.” When the Latin phrase passed into Old French, it became the single word manouvrer and was used to mean “to make or produce” and “to perform manual labor,” but when English speakers borrowed the French in the early fifteenth century, they Anglicized the spelling to the now familiar manure and used it to mean “to work the soil” and “to cultivate and manage the land.” Of course, cultivating the land often involves the spreading of fertilizer, and since the earliest fertilizers were made of animal dung, it wasn't long before manure took on the sense of “to spread dung on the fields.” During the latter half of the sixteenth century, however, the word became more closely associated with the fertilizer than the act of fertilizing and thus took on the noun sense of “animal dung,” and by the time 1700 rolled around, the noun sense had become more prominent and the verb was relegated to the farmers' argot.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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