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Interesting Etymologies – Let’s Spruce It up!

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com
Question: What do spruce trees and clean rooms have to do with each other? 
 
 
 
 
Answer: Etymology
 
 
The other day I was reading the story of David Copperfield by Dickens. I have been reading quite a bit of his work recently due to my self confined state of illness and my holiday tradition of reading A Christmas Carol every year. For those of you who know me, this should come as no surprise. I probably highlight at least 2-3 words per page when I am reading. Sometimes I’ll highlight an entire phrase or idiom and will immediately (never later like a normal person) look up the phrase or word in question. This time Dickens is narrating the story from Davy’s perspective and used the word spruce as to to sprucen up. I immediately thought, “where does that come from? “I really struggled to even make an inference as to how they were connected. After looking it up, I’m glad I didn’t try. 
 
So, how do trees have anything to do with cleaning? Prussia
 
Spruce originally was used as an adjective to describe trade items hailing from Prussia. The word itself derives from the Old French form of Prussia, Pruce.  According to the entry from the etymological dictionary online, no information is known about where the phoneme /s/ originates. 
 
It was a way of telling where the wood came from. Therefore, something was made from spruce wood (spellings vary). As other items from Prussia were traded, they also took on the adjective to explain their origins. Well, as with all language, one thing leads to another and people fall in love with a particular item that all the cool kids are wearing and things start to change. In the 16th and 17th centuries, leather jerkins from Prussia found their way to England and started a craze. To look great, you had to have one. 
 
Apart from that, all else is speculation based on evidence of usage that I’m not going to even start to explore. It’s far more fun for me to imagine some younger generation using the word and making the elders grumpy at their changing lingo only to see themselves using it just a year later without any sense of irony.
 
At this point in my journey, I couldn’t help but wonder about that initial sibilant /s/ hanging out on the name of a people it didn’t naturally belong. It seemed strange to me that the /s/ would appear on a word that was clearly in the territory of a people whose native languages all contained an initial /p/ sound. Then I thought it may have something to do with the /pr/ combination and ability to combine those sounds. Fortunately, Wiktionary offers easy answers in that it already translated the name of Prussia into a variety of languages by geographical region. My initial excitement left me after a mere second of glancing to notice that ALL of the languages listed pronounced the name with a /p/ sound at the beginning. I realized that this wasn’t going to be easy. 
 
That’s when I started digging even deeper into the history of the Prussian people, their trade goods, and the people with whom they interacted. So, I looked for the Hanseatic merchants who traded the goods in England where the word must have been introduced. This took me on one of those Google induced rabbit holes where you click on every link but open it in a new tab where your browser looks like the pile of food an animal might hoard for hibernation. 
 
I looked at every group of people and dialects that they may have interacted with along the routes of trade. It was a painstaking but incredibly fun process, and I learned a lot about northern Germanic languages from the time period. I also got a glimpse into what life was like for people of that era and what they would have used to build houses and what they ate. 

Fascinating as it was, the trail went cold before it even began. The reality is, I was unable to find even the slightest answer as to where the initial sibilant came from. Still, my hunch is that it has something to do with a group of people who were unable to voice the /pr/ from a phonological point of view and added the initial /s/ in the same way that we here in the United States have a hard time pronouncing names from eastern Europe and add all kinds of vowels in all kinds of odd places. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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