I was looking through some entries on a blog from Spain not so long ago when I encountered the word dehesa, which the DRAE defines as ‘Tierra generalmente acotada y por lo común destinada a pastos,’ which is to say ‘a piece of land generally marked off and usually dedicated to pasture.’ The word was new to me, so naturally I looked up its origin, which turns out to be, given the characteristic Spanish transformation of f to h, Latin defensa, the feminine past participle of the verb defendere that has given us defender/defend. From the Latin past participle, of course, we also have the noun defensa/defense, the English version of which people in sports have in recent years turned into a verb. Stranger than that change in parts of speech, which isn’t strange at all in English, is the fact that way back in the 14th century English speakers were already shortening defense to fence, which then became a separate word that modern speakers of the language almost never connect with defense. The concept was that a fence “defends” a piece of land against intruders. No fence, however, can defend against change in language.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Nov 16, 2013 @ 20:37:31

    And where, historically, there has been no fence, it’s interesting to explore precisely what the establishment of fences was meant to defend against.

    (The photo was taken along the Native Stone Scenic Byway in Wabaunsee County, Kansas.)


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 16, 2013 @ 22:31:00

      And I have no defense for my ignorance of Wabaunsee County; the Native Stone Scenic Byway; and the 1867 law abolishing the open range, which defenders of the open range were unable to fend off.


  2. Andy Klatt
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 12:35:14

    Re: ‘a piece of land generally marked off and usually dedicated to agriculture.’
    I think not dedicated to agriculture but to pasture.


  3. Andy Klatt
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 17:16:18

    Thanks Steve, I enjoy your blog. Since I’m a translator I think about such things, and I may use some of your posts in a course I teach if I think they will help students to think about the words we use. Actually the literal translation would be “grasses” but in the context I think that pasture does the trick. Reminds me of the Inclosure or Enclosure Acts in the UK.

    From Wikipedia: Some enclosures had to be carried out by force and many sparked resistance from users of the common land, including the tearing down of fences used to enclose the land. As a historically significant process of land privatisation, the Enclosure Acts are sometimes seen as one or both of building blocks of capitalism and theft by major landowners from the peasantry.


    • Andy Klatt
      Dec 03, 2013 @ 17:21:04

      Talking about tearing down agricultural fences to regain access to the land, and to get back to Spanish, check out the words to Daniel Vigietti’s song ‘A desalambrar’. He can also be seen and heard singing it on YouTube.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 03, 2013 @ 20:41:50

      I don’t know much about the Enclosure Acts in the UK (though a little more now from your comment), but similar conflicts arose in the United States in the 1800s between ranchers who wanted to maintain the open range and farmers who wanted to fence out the animals in order to grow crops.


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