Manufacturing and farming

“If I step in something nasty from time to time, chances are pretty good that something is of my own manufacture….” When I saw that sentence in the blog kiwsparks a couple of weeks ago it caught my attention, and for a reason that will be clear if you bear with me for a bit. Even if you haven’t read the last post in this column, many of you have probably already made the connection, or have had it pointed out to you, between the English word manufacture and Spanish mano ‘hand’: to manufacture was originally ‘to make by hand,’ because in ancient times that was about the only way to produce products. The ‘hand’ root also appears in Spanish maniobra, literally ‘handiwork.’ From the motion of hands at work crafting an object came the later sense of ‘a movement of troops’ and then more generally ‘any sort of movement carried out to achieve a certain end.’ English turned to the Old French cognate of maniobra for maneuvre.

Now, in the Middle Ages most people lived in rural areas, where a primary occupation, and a highly labor-intensive one, was farming. In Anglo-Norman, the dialect of Old French that developed in England when the Normans ruled it in the centuries following the Battle of Hastings, the verb mainouvrer ‘to work by hand’ came to be associated primarily with cultivating land. What started out as mainouvrer evolved to Middle English manuren (-en was the old infinitive ending in English). Semantically, because one type of hand movement that farmers regularly had to carry out in the cultivation of their crops was fertilizing them, the scope of the verb eventually narrowed from cultivation in general to fertilization in particular, and that explains how modern English manure, a doublet of maneuver, came to mean what it does.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kathryningrid
    Jan 18, 2012 @ 13:10:11

    If I say this is a load of manure, then, you have to take it as a compliment!! I love following the clews in your etymological tales. So informative and provocative. And thanks for the ping!

    I had intended to comment on the previous post myself, but was prevented from doing so, and I’m not making this up, by a computer crash at just the wrong moment. But all I really had to say on the occasion was “WHAT??? *That’s* what you think ‘mano a mano’ means? Were you born in a . . . “–well, you know the rest.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 18, 2012 @ 13:26:41

      Thanks, and I’ll maneuver any manure into the realm of the complimentary. We have hundreds of doublets in English, and some are better for “Therein lies a tale” than others. Maneuver ~ manure is one of the most picturesque pairs.

      The mano a mano was strange. I must not have realized that all you have to do is take an English noun and stick -o on the end of it to turn it into Spanish, righto?

      Your friendo,


  2. shoreacres
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 11:03:56

    Ah! Perhaps a peek into the spam folder will reveal my previous comment. I’d hate to lose “amanuensis” and “manuscript” to the ether!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 26, 2012 @ 11:51:04

      It’s a good thing that you suggested looking in the spam folder. There I found a comment by someone else that was intended for my other blog; it had been sitting in limbo for two weeks but I liberated it and replied to it.


  3. shoreacres
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 11:06:00

    Never mind. I sorted it out myself. Correcto.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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