Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot: Leaves

     The snowstorm predicted for Thursday came, cutting down the number of wee cops and miniature firefighters who showed up at our house in the evening.
    "Take two," I'd say, extending my big bowl of Mounds and Paydays (my wife's favorites, selected with leftovers in mind). Thinking ahead, I put the car away to keep it from being encased in ice.
     By Friday, the snow was gone. But the blizzard blown leaves remained. Leaving the house, I was stunned by this expanse of leaves, uninterrupted by the car which normally would be there.
    Wait a sec. "Leaving the house ... this expanse of leaves..." I never juxtaposed those homonyms before. A good moment to play my favorite game (well, among my favorite games): Which came first? Leaves, the flappy plant appendages, or leaves, the third-person simple singular present verb that means, ironically, both going and allowing something to remain (in the sense of, "He leaves the book on the table")? And is there any connection? I can't believe that departure, or staying, was named after what happens to tree's plumage in the fall, or that that huge swath of botany was labeled by its fall from sky to ground. I mean, they don't really leave so much as relocate a few feet southward. They haven't left. They're still there.
     The short answer is neither. The first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is a meaning that didn't leap to mind: "1. Permission asked for or granted to do something." As in "to take your leave" with a citation from 900 A.D. The root, the dictionary notes, is the same as "love," the Old English leaf meaning "pleasure, approval."
     Which explains belief, not to forget sick leave, military leaves, and "leave of absence" which the OED traces to 1771. Next we get "leave" as in "allowing to remain." To leave your soup untouched.
     Not until definition No. 7 do we get "To go away from, quit (a place, person, or thing); to deviate from (a lie of road, etc.)." The earliest citation is in 1225, but in a form of English so old it uses letters I can't reproduce. The earliest sharable use is 1557, "leif the toun,"
     Now onto "leaf," which the OED first defines, somewhat cryptically as "An expanded organ of a plant, produced laterally from a stem or branch, or springing from its root; one of the parts of a plant which collectively constitute its foliage."
   That showed up in 825 A.D., in the Vespers Psalter: "swe swe leaf wyrta hrede fallad."
   No, I couldn't translate that, though I did try. If you want to take a crack at it, be my guest.
   Before we take our ... ah, before we depart from this subject, I have to mention that leaf as in a sheet of paper in a book is almost as old, 900 A.D., meaning we've been calling the things on trees and the things in books the same name for more than a thousand years.
    Samuel Johnson, in his great 1755 dictionary, by the way, begins his definition with leaf, the foliage, illustrating it with some lovely lines from Shakespeare:
This is the state of man; today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes, tomorrow blossoms.
    Then he moves on to pages from a book. Third, a definition fallen from popular usage, "One side of a double door," and then yet another definition that had slipped my mind: "Any thing foliated, or thinly beaten." As in gold leaf.
     Which seems a good place to stop and circle back, taking one more look at these golden leaves. They're a mingling of elm and ash leaves, and yes, I treat the ash tree, a cimarron ash I unwisely planted 20 years ago, against the ash borer. That's why it's still with us, dropping leaves mightily, this year all in a mighty storm-driven whoosh, all over the driveway.



  1. I noticed similar distributions of leaves following Thursdays snowfall, an unusual sight in the age of the leaf blower. Enjoy this part of Falls' spectacle while we can. Not sure of the full meaning of the Vespers quote but ould fallad refer to the product of a mendacious traveling minstrel?

  2. A lovely exquisition into homonyms, the abundance of which in our language is said to be one of the things most confounding to foreign English learners. One of my favorites is illustrated by an old joke about a young nun rushing into the office and exclaiming "Holy Mother, they say there's a case of gonorrea in the convent." To which the Abbess replies, "The good Lord be praised. I was getting so tired of chardonnay."


    1. You made my day, Tom. Thanks. And, of course, thanks to Neil for his assiduous scholarship giving you the chance to tell your joke.


  3. Yes!! Etymology, Shakespeare, and reflections upon a late fall storm and its impact on a few trees.
    To me, this is about as good as it gets for a lazy Saturday morning.
    But I'm easy to please....

  4. A blanket of leaves like that? When they're dry and crunchy...nice to look at and fun to walk through...but not so much fun for those who have to pick them up...especially when they're soaking wet and the weather is gray and cold. Or even worse---snowy.

    I live on a large and shady corner lot. Even with fewer trees than I had in the past, I'm still faced with filling 40 to 50 bags every fall season. Late October and all of November are sheer drudgery for me, every year. If the weather is especially poor, I sometimes don't get finished until mid-December.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.