Q: I’ve heard the phrase “neck of the woods” many times, and just accepted it. But when I heard it again the other day, I started wondering. Why do people refer to their neighborhood as their neck of the woods?
A: Several hundred years ago, early American settlers used the word “neck” to describe a narrow stretch of wood, pasture, meadows, and so on.
Our expression “neck of the woods,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a surviving remnant of that old usage.
The use of “neck” to describe a narrow piece of land was of course an extension of the anatomical term “neck”—that narrow stretch located between the head and the shoulders.
The original word dates back to the 800s (it was first recorded in Old English as hneccan), and comes from old Germanic sources.
Since the 14th century, people have used “neck” to describe a variety of things that were narrow or constricted, like the top of a bottle, a mountain pass, an inlet of water, the fingerboard of a stringed instrument, and so on.
So the early colonists were merely carrying on a tradition when they used “neck” to describe a narrow piece of land. (You might say they weren’t sticking their necks out.)
The usage was first recorded in colonial property deeds.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from a document written in Dedham. Mass., in 1637: “Graunted to Samuell Morse yt necke of medowe lying next unto ye medowes graunted unto Edward Alleyn.”
Here’s another example, from Providence, R.I., in 1699: “A percell of Meadow which … is scituate in a neck of Meaddow on the north side of Pautuxett River.”
In modern usage, the OED says, “neck of the woods” can mean “a settlement in wooded country, or a small or remotely situated community.” But more generally, it means “a district, neighbourhood, or region.”
And when people speak of “this neck of the woods,” they mean “around here” or “in this vicinity.”
Check out our books about the English language