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) is indeed derived from a now-obsolete term for Prussia that entered English in the 14th century. But the connection with the adjective (meaning sharp or dapper) and the verb (to make neat or trim) is a bit iffy.

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.

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

Does the post-Classical Latin name Prussia have anything to do the spruce trees growing in that land? Not as far as we know.

The OED says the origin of the country’s post-Classical Latin name “is uncertain and disputed.” And in case you’re wondering, the Classical Latin word for a spruce tree is picea, not prucia.

The dictionary notes that the country’s name comes from Prussi, a post-Classical Latin name for the Prussian people. But it adds that the Prussians were also called Borussi and Pruteni in post-Classical Latin.

The English verb “spruce” showed up in the late 1500s in The Terrors of the Night, a discourse on apparitions. The author, Thomas Nashe, uses “spunging & sprucing” to mean cleaning up, apparently in the ghost-busting sense.

The adjective first showed up around 1600 in Ben Jonson’s comedy Every Man Out of His Humor: “A Neat, spruce, affecting Courtier, one that weares clothes well, and in Fashion.”

The latecomer here is the noun for the evergreen tree. The first citation in the OED is from Sylva, John Evelyn’s 1674 book about trees: “For masts, &c., those of Prussia, which we call Spruce … are the best.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology speculates that the neatness sense of the word may be related to spruce leather, “a popular style in the 1400s made in Prussia and considered smart-looking.”

The OED doesn’t go quite so far, but it points readers to a 1609 book by Thomas Dekker that hints at a possible connection.

In The Guls Horne-Booke, Dekker refers to “the neatest and sprucest leather.”

Sorry we can’t spruce up the etymology a bit, but language can be a messy business.

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