The Grammarphobia Blog

Earthen-wariness

Q: When you were on the Leonard Lopate Show last month, you used the term “earthenware” for an embankment made of earth. You meant to say “earthworks,” didn’t you? Earthenware is a type of low-fired pottery, like a flowerpot or a majolica dish. But you knew that, of course. We potters get upset over things like that. Otherwise, I love both Leonard and you. Kindred souls and fellow language nerds!

A: You’re right of course. I thought I was saying that an “earthwork” (a man-made construction of earth) could be called an “embankment.” I must have misspoken and said “earthenware”! Sorry about that. And thanks for nudging me.

By the way, “earthenware” first showed up in English in the late 17th century, but it was often written as two words until the 19th century.

In a 1673 account of his travels through the Netherlands, the English naturalist John Ray said Delft “is noted for good earthen Ware, as Stone-jugs, Pots, etc.”

The adjective “earthen” and the noun “ware” are much, much older, of course.

The word “earthen” merely meant “composed of earth” when it first appeared in English in the early 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It wasn’t until the late 14th century that it came to mean “made of baked clay.”

The first citation in the OED for “earthen” in relation to pottery comes from the English theologian John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Bible: “Go and tac the erthene litil wyne vessel of the crockere.”

The word “ware” is a lot older, probably dating back to Alfred the Great, the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon king, according to the OED. The noun, waru in Old English, originally meant watchful care, then apparently came to mean an object of care.

By around the year 1000, according to the OED, “ware” was being used in our modern sense as a collective term for merchandise or goods.

Here’s a late 14th century citation from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “Greet prees at market maketh deere ware.”

And may you and your fellow potters get a “greet prees” for your “deere ware”!

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