The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s spruce up our language

Q: I enjoy reading on the Kindle because all I have to do is point to a word and the Oxford American Dictionary definition pops up. For example, I came across the word “spruce” (as in, he’s looking very spruce) and learned that it’s derived from “Prussia.”

A: Yes, there’s a link between “spruce” and “Prussia,” but the connection isn’t quite so neat as the dictionary seems to imply.

The noun “spruce” (the fir tree) is indeed derived from a now-obsolete term for Prussia that entered English in the 14th century. And the country’s connection with the other “spruce” seems likely, but it’s a bit more tentative.

From the 14th to the 17th centuries, Prussia was often referred to as “Spruce” or “Spruce-land” in English, though spellings differed widely: “Sprewse,” “Sprusse,” “Spruse,” and so on.

This “Spruce” and its variations evolved from the country’s name in post-classical Latin (Prussia), Anglo-Norman (Pruys, Pruz), and Middle French (Pruce, Prusse), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The German word for Prussia is Preußen.)

The dictionary notes that the country’s name comes from Prussi, a post-classical Latin name for the Prussian people.

It’s probable that “spruce,” meaning the fir tree or its wood, came into English before the adjective meaning neat. A word spelled “spruse” was used for the wood of the spruce fir as far back as 1412, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. 

But “spruce” (spelled various ways) was sometimes used ambiguously in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In phrases like “spruce board,” “spruce ell,” “spruce chest,” “spruce coffer,” and even “spruce tree,” the OED says, the adjective could have meant “brought or obtained from Prussia,” or “in some instances” could have implied the spruce fir.

Here’s one of the examples the OED finds ambiguous:  “A maste of a spruce tree … bought for the foremast of the seid ship” (from Naval Accounts and Inventories of Henry VII, 1497).

There’s no ambiguity, however, in this citation from the OED, which is definitely a reference to the spruce fir: “For masts, &c., those of Prussia, which we call Spruce … are the best” (from Sylva, John Evelyn’s 1670 book about trees).

The other “spruce” (the neat one) was first recorded in the late 16th century in Richard Harvey’s Plaine Perceuall (1589): “neat, nimble, spruse Artificer.”

And Ben Jonson used the word a decade later in his comedy Every Man Out of His Humor: “A Neat, spruce, affecting Courtier, one that weares clothes well, and in Fashion.”

The English verb “spruce” (to neaten) showed up in writing at roughly the same time. The OED’s earliest citation is from The Terrors of the Night (1594), a discourse on apparitions. The author, Thomas Nashe, uses “spunging & sprucing” to mean cleaning up, apparently in the ghost-busting sense.

Etymologists believe that the neatness sense of the word may have come from the term “spruce leather,” first recorded in 1464 and meaning a kind of Prussian leather.

As Chambers says, jerkins made of spruce leather were “a popular style in the 1400s made in Prussia and considered smart-looking.”

And John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, “spruce leather” or “Prussian leather” was “a particularly fine sort of leather, used for making jackets.”

The leather connection would explain how “spruce” came to mean dressy in the 16th century. The OED points readers to Thomas Dekker’s The Guls Horne-Booke (1609), which  refers to “the neatest and sprucest leather.”

But the connection with Prussia here is less neat and tidy than the one between Prussia and the fir tree.

[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 16, 2015.]

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